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MONTEREY, Calif. – Despite ongoing efforts, credit unions are doing a poor job when it comes to educating elected officials, policy makers and the general public about the role of their financial institutions, and there is an “urgent need to ramp up the public advocacy machine.” That was the assessment given by David Chatfield, president/CEO of the California and Nevada Credit Union League s speaking at the 2004 Big Valley Educational Conference here. As he has at previous conferences, Chatfield urged credit unions to do more to get their message out to the public and elected officials. He said such efforts were especially critical now because of an “unprecedented level and number of attacks by the banking industry against credit unions, which we know will continue.” “We’ve been under attack for most of my 39 years in the credit union movement, but it’s never been this intense, vicious or well-coordinated before,” he said. Speaking at the conference’s March 19 opening day session, Chatfield called public advocacy one of the league’s weakest areas and a “serious problem” for credit unions. He cited surveys showing only two out of 10 non-members of credit unions knew about credit unions and only about half of non-members could name a credit union in their local area. Further, he said 70% of Californians list banks as their primary financial institution “and those folks overwhelmingly side with banks in a dispute with credit unions.” “If these policy makers and their constituents don’t know about our not-for-profit, cooperative structure and the benefits we provide to consumers in their districts, they are much less likely to support credit union interests,” he said. “Even worse, they are much more likely to listen to the worn-out complaints from bankers in their organized state and national efforts to restrict and tax CUs.” An estimated 900 people, including credit union officials, vendors and guests, attended the three-day conference March 18-20 which featured guest speakers – including credit union supporter U.S. Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.) – educational breakout sessions and political action committee fund-raising activities. Kanjorski, who led the House effort to pass HR 1151, the Credit Union Membership Access Act, spoke at the closing session. His talk focused on maintaining a strong middle class and the role credit unions play in that effort. “The credit union movement means to me what America is about or should be about-a unique form of democratic capitalism,” Kanjorski said. He added that the public needed to be financially literate and understand the nation’s fiscal issues. “As voters, we can’t afford to say `I didn’t know’ about economic issues currently facing the nation,” he said. In addition to Kanjorski, guest speakers included Earl Woods, father of pro golfer Tiger Woods, Jason Dias, who addressed the crowd about generational marketing and management, and Aron Ralston, who recounted his 2003 survival in a mountaineering accident in which he was forced to amputate his arm to survive. A variety of educational sessions were held during the conference, including ones on consumer lending to the small business member, computer security, understanding the Arabic culture and a board’s legal and ethical responsibilities. Chatfield opened the conference by trying to rouse credit union leaders to action on public advocacy issues. He vowed the league would renew its focus on that area this year. Besides the assaults from the banking industry, he noted that credit unions also have to deal with continually educating legislators and legislative staffs due to term limits. “All this points to the urgent need for credit unions to ramp up the public advocacy machine and integrate a consistent, effective awareness campaign into our ongoing advocacy efforts,” he said. “We cannot afford to get caught behind the curve again. A strong, well-coordinated public advocacy effort is more important now than ever as a key counterpart to our credit union legislative and regulatory advocacy activities. “Clearly, the time is now for credit unions to begin and conduct a strong public advocacy campaign every year to strengthen our support from the public and policy makers, to educate the up-and-coming elected officials and to build solid public support,” Chatfield said. “This will not only firm up our political standing, it will help credit unions increase and serve their membership.” Chatfield also announced a five-year, $7.5 million campaign by the Richard Myles Johnson Foundation to promote required financial literacy education in California and Nevada. Called “It’s a New Day at RMJ,” the foundation said its goal was to eliminate financial illiteracy by “Shining a Brighter Light on Financial Education.” The strategy calls for expanded fund-raising, increased accessibility to the foundation and support of mandated financial education. -

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