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HELENA, Mont. – There aren’t many credit union or bank trade associations anywhere in the U.S. that have the missionary zeal for social causes and civic improvement as the Montana Credit Union Network. And there aren’t many that in a span of little more than two years have received so many community development accolades – as well as a myriad of grants – for projects ranging from helping battered wives get financial assistance to aiding low-income Montanans to purchase their first home. While the many MCUN programs have already produced what many see as far-reaching results in scores of small and larger cities across the state, part of the effort by the 12-member staff has an admitted element of self-interest for the 69 CUs that make up the trade group. “We know what we’re doing in Montana is the right way to achieve the `people helping people’ mission but we also know that we’ve got to pursue that goal when you consider a defense against bank attacks,” explains Tracie Kenyon, president/CEO of the network. The MCUN “Development Initiative” program, as it is known, was started when Kenyon, the former senior vice president of the Utah League of Credit Unions, joined the Montana trade group in 2001. One of her first acts was to set up a “Development Department” as a core function of the trade association. She also established a nonprofit subsidiary, the Montana Credit Unions for Community Development, to serve as a public “face” for the development initiatives and to provide a clearer message to the community. In less than two years MCUN had corralled $243,300 in grants to fund their development initiatives. Funding came from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Treasury, the National Credit Union Foundation, NCUA, and a local Montana foundation. Not only is the trade association receiving grants, so are its credit unions. The number of NCUA technical assistance grants has mushroomed from four CUs in 2003 receiving $7,500 to 18 credit unions receiving nearly $104,000. The funds go toward a mix of projects ranging from expanding a mortgage lending program at Wolf Point FCU to outreach on an Indian Reservation at Bear Paw CU. And the Network received its own NCUA grant – $15,000 for education scholarships to distribute to the 44 low-income CUs in Montana. Also impressive is that while Montana CUs represent less than 1% of all credit unions in the country, they boasted 8.6% of the $1.2 million in NCUA grants awarded in 2004. “I believe this success was due to the Network’s proactive approach,” commented another key MCUN staffer, Jeanne Saarinen, vice president of development services. “We helped CUs obtain their NCUA low-income designation, provided telephone training on how to apply for the NCUA grants, and we always share success stories when a CU receives a grant.which provides encouragement,” added Saarinen. Currently, 44 of the state’s 71 CUs have the low-income designation. MCUN’s development initiatives include financial education, affordable alternatives to payday loans, Individual Development Accounts, and Earned Income Tax Credit electronic tax filing assistance. A key component of each initiative is building partnerships between credit unions and community organizations. For example, the Montana Legal Services Association contacted MCUN about an Individual Development Account project for survivors of domestic violence. They were able to find a credit union partner for the project, Tri Valley Community FCU in East Helena. The CU was able to obtain a $10,000 grant from the National Federation of Community Development CUs to help support the project. “We’re glad we can help so many women get through some pretty rough times,” explained Tammy Peltomaa, manager of Tri Valley. Another initiative has been a “Financial Fitness” collaborative in Missoula joining homeWORD, a local nonprofit, together with area CUs to offer financial education. Working to replicate the “fitness” model in communities will be another League staffer, Karen Dunn, director of financial education. “The success of Financial Fitness has shown us that strong local partnerships are essential.we absolutely could not have achieved this level of quality without the credit union support,” said Jessie Lundberg , a homeWORD staffer. Yet another example – a statewide free electronic tax filing service co-sponsored by the MCUN and the Montana Legal Services Association. The program allows tax filers qualifying for Earned Income Tax Credit to file online at http://www.icanefile.org/ for free, helping them avoid rapid refund services. Credit unions helped get the word out about this free service and two Montana CUs even made available a workstation for those qualifying tax filers without Internet access. Saarinen expects many more CUs will participate for the coming tax year. Anthony LaCreta, director of NCUA’s Office of Credit Union Development in Washington, said MCUN’s community development work represents a “model” for other trade groups because of “its creative and innovative approach.” He said the “synergy between the league and local organizations through partnerships shows how things really happen” when there is commitment by CU leaders to reach out to the underserved. This year, MCUN has also been instrumental in the development of two state-wide coalitions, the Montana Financial Education Coalition and the Montana Alliance for Responsible Finance, which has been targeting payday lending. Dunn, MCUN director of financial education, is a director of the Montana Financial Coalition and also served as its annual meeting chairman this year. On payday lending, Saarinen said nine CUs have already volunteered to aid the Alliance and as of yet no bankers have stepped up to the plate. Kenyon maintained the league’s program are bringing solid results to many local communities and when the public recognizes those achievements then Montana CUs “become `teflon-coated’ against future attacks and prove to lawmakers the credit union difference through action.” [email protected]

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