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ITHACA, N.Y – It says something about Alternatives Federal Credit Union that when a reporter called to ask about its silver anniversary, it takes the credit union a while to document that it received its charter on January 12, 1979. “Of course we had it written down somewhere,” said Leni Hochman, chief operations officer for the $46 million credit union, “we’ve just been too busy to pay a lot of attention to it.” Hochman apologized for not remembering the date off the top of her head, but the more you get to know the “Alternatives Group” as Hochman calls it, the clearer it is that the credit union’s many different and innovative programs don’t leave much room for distant dates. “People are sometimes surprised to learn that Alternatives credit union is really only one of the things we do,” Hochman said. “The whole Alternatives effort consists of different corporations because one of the things we have learned is that a credit union is sometimes not the best way to do everything.” In addition to the credit union itself, the Alternative’s Group includes the Alternatives Fund, which is the credit union’s parent organization and the means by which people join the credit union; the Alternatives Ithaca CUSO, which gives Alternative members a place to make socially responsible investments; and the Alternatives Community Ventures an organization which both applies for and makes the sorts of community development grants that would otherwise be closed to the credit union. Alternatives created each of these, Hochman pointed out, because the credit union saw needs that needed to be filled and set out to try to fill them – an attitude which Hochman said has guaranteed that Alternatives was often on the cutting edge, or sometimes over the cutting edge, of what credit unions can do. “We were among the first credit unions in New York to offer checking accounts,” Hochman recalled, “and at the time we were considered very small to be offering checking accounts.” And that wasn’t all. Alternatives offered mortgages, Hochman said, back when NCUA was very nervous and concerned about credit unions making mortgage loans and would allow it only under tight limits. The list went on, credit cards, small business lending, educational programs, socially responsible investing. “Of course everything we try doesn’t always work out right away,” Hochman said, although she couldn’t remember any idea that had absolutely failed. With 61% of its 7,000 members with incomes lower than the national average, Hochman said Alternatives regularly tries to measure its programs to make sure that as many different members as possible can use them. That has sometimes proved challenging as the credit union’s membership has broadened over the years, Hochman explained, as members moved away and wanted to keep their relationship with Alternatives and as people interested in community development banking discovered the credit union through the press or over the Internet. “Since we have an associational field of membership and anyone who joins the Alternatives Fund can join the credit union we have a more or less nationwide field of membership,” Hochman said, adding that this has helped Alternatives draw the capital it has used in its development work even as it has meant a more geographically diverse membership. Cliff Rosenthal, executive director of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions praised Alternatives highly, both for its innovative spirit as well as for its ability to undertake both broad development programs and the provision of retail banking services. “It’s really rare that you find an institution which can take on broader development initiatives as well as handle the retail,” Rosenthal said. Rosenthal echoed Hochman’s crediting of Alternatives CEO Bill Myers for much of the credit union’s success. Hochman called Myers “visionary” and the Federation announced earlier this year that Myers would be one of the recipients of its Annie Vamper Helping Hand award, the highest it can offer. Examples of how Alternatives has reached out to work beyond the provision of retail credit union services abound. The credit union’s GO Fund, which is an “equity-like” investment fund which, Hochman admitted, still needs to be “tweaked” a bit, has invested in firms which have designed software for the construction industry as well as built playgrounds, sold education products to college students and even opened an Italian restaurant. The credit union’s Business Cents program offers people interested in starting small businesses an 11- week program in everything from small business management to basic accounting and networking and regularly graduates more than 10 classes a year. While, in yet another educational effort, more Alternatives members start off down the credit union’s Credit Path program, a educational effort which leads people step by step to better credit and home ownership. Looking over Alternative’s brand new building, Hochman admitted that it can be hard to visualize the small institution she first walked into 22 years ago, much less the Alternatives which might be in place 25 years hence. “Whatever it will be,” she said, “I don’t expect it will look much like anything we imagine today.” -

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