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Now that NAFCU’s 34th Annual Conference and Exhibition is history, the organization’s leadership group, staff, and members who attended the gala event in Orlando earlier this month have to be pleased with the outcome. Once again, NAFCU meeting planners put together a large conference that was thoroughly professional with excellent signage, classy audio-visuals, thorough and informative meeting materials, and good attention to logistic details in the huge Marriott World Center Resort and Convention Center. As is NAFCU’s annual conference reputation, everything ran like clockwork, and the program featured an ambitious line-up of excellent educational sessions, well-orchestrated special events, and a first rate (although sparsely attended) exhibition program. Yet, for all the kudos the conference deserves, every year I come away from NAFCU’s annual gathering with a nagging feeling that an important ingredient was missing. In fairness, it’s the same feeling I have when I depart from other large credit union meetings as well. It’s time to talk about it. As I think back on the program, the same questions keep coming to mind: Where was the controversy? Is everything going so great in the credit union world that participants can’t find anything over which to become passionate? Why is it that the excitement in evidence by credit union people during the year in letters, e-mails, telephone calls, and especially in one-on-one conversations, rarely seems to surface on conference programs? Perhaps the large crowds are intimidating, or most meetings are not really geared up for audience participation when it comes to dealing with timely issues? Where were the opportunities to have give and take arguments over such front burner issues as the future of the federal charter, the explosive growth of state-chartered community credit unions, the many changes at NCUA, and the latest shenanigans by banking industry lobbyists? It seems to me as though a pattern for national credit union meetings has developed. There’s an upbeat opening heavy on sights, sounds, and emotion. Then there are two or three general sessions interspersed throughout the conference that feature high-profile (expensive) speakers talking in general terms. Then there are dozens of concurrent sessions featuring bread and butter topics that are organized by categories or tracks. At NAFCU’s annual conference they included these four: “finance, management/marketing, operations/technology,” and last but not least, “issues.” Shouldn’t “issues” be more in the spotlight than just one of four tracks? Shouldn’t it be a main focus? In July, 2001, what kinds of issues would I as a participant want to get into at a national credit union conference? For starters, I’d want to not just hear about but actually discuss and debate important issues like these: Credit unions becoming banks, the impact of the now-official privacy dos and don’ts, credit unions and predatory lending, the overhead transfer rate (OTR) and the Boeing Report, the pros and cons of private share insurance, taxation, the expanding role of CUSOs, the challenges impacting the future of my organization, out-of-control non-bank competition, the new breed of CU CEOs, NCUA from board positions and its annual budget to the pros and cons of splitting NCUA from NCUSIF, CAP/CRA issues, after RegFlex what then, and for sure, the just-released recommendations of the CUNA’s Renaissance Commission. Although Renaissance is clearly a CUNA initiative, every credit union group should discuss it at their meetings and then give input to CUNA. In fact, what would have been so wrong to have CUNA representatives actually put on an interactive Renaissance recommendations session at the NAFCU conference? After all, those nearly 100 recommendations cross all credit union lines. A listing of them would have made a great handout and been an excellent discussion-starter. Even if only a tiny percentage of the initial recommendations end up becoming legislative and regulatory proposals, they still could have a profound impact on all credit unions as well as on the policies and procedures of the organizations to which those credit unions belong. NAFCU and other CU groups need to wade in and be heard well before CUNA attempts to seek approval on any specific recommendations. NAFCU, almost as much as CUNA, will need to be prepared to deal with the banking lobby’s backlash which has already begun in earnest. They will also need to be ready with answers to questions sure to be asked from the halls of Congress to the average consumer and the groups that claim to represent their best interests. Along those same lines, now is the time for all credit union groups that sponsor annual conferences to include a prominent spot on the program for a leadership panel. Here’s where the people making the decisions can be asked the tough questions. Here’s where credit union faithful can demonstrate first hand their support, or lack thereof, to what these leaders are advocating. Good old fashioned debate is still one of the best methods of effective communication and consensus building. At this point it may appear that I am being overly critical of the NAFCU Annual Conference and Exhibition. That is not my intention. As I’ve said before, NAFCU has long set the standard with its annual conference. But my bewilderment surfaced again at NAFCU’s Orlando conference regarding the almost uniform avoidance of dealing with controversial issues in a meeting format that has become the norm for credit union groups. That doesn’t mean the NAFCU meeting didn’t give participants plenty of bang for their conference fee buck. They did. Lots of important issues were on the agenda and covered well. Like timely legislative and regulatory updates. Like lots of good e-commerce stuff. Like good sessions on marketing, fees, fraud, member service, risk management, and lots more. But I came away thinking, as I do from other national credit union meetings, what another missed opportunity to tackle the real issues facing credit unions and those who manage and set policy for them in an apparent effort to avoid controversy at all costs. Why? Comments? Call 1-800-345-9936, Ext. 15, or Fax 561-683-8514, or E-mail [email protected]

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Peter Westerman

Credit Union Times

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