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I just finished reading Sarah Snell Cooke’s Jan. 28 column, “E Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One,” and I thought it was the best piece I have read by her or either of her two predecessors. She spoke strongly, with confidence and without apology. She delivered truth and recognition. As a nation we have to take responsibility and taking that level of responsibility down to the individual level and the change that accompanies it I believe was one of the themes President Obama spoke of during his inaugural address, and if he didn’t say that then maybe he should have.Here, we too face some problems, and some of those problems were problems we made or contributed to. When I look with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight at some of our loans now gone bad, I have asked, ‘could we as individuals handle that debt load’ and ‘would we be able to make ends meet.’ We are not a fulfillment center, and in order for the credit union cooperative model to function, it requires that members actually use their credit union and use it for savings and loans. If members don’t save or only save a little, then there will not be the pool of funds available to make loans and the model will not function. In a chicken and egg analogy, savings come before loans.We make it easy for members to avoid fees, yet we have a higher than peer level of noninterest income because too many members constantly live on the edge financially and effectively one paycheck away from disaster. We have not been successful in promoting thrift and as a result too many of our members, like the banks and corporates, are undercapitalized.Cooke spoke of the wealth effect. Two years ago it occurred to me that most of our members have never owned a financial asset, and if they did then maybe they would feel wealthier but more importantly maybe they would pay more frequent attention to their money. If you don’t pay attention to your money on an ongoing basis, you will never be able to control it. We seek to empower members, not entrap them. So to make it easier for members to build some real wealth (or start anyway) and avoid fees, we introduced the starter certificate. With that members can open a certificate with no minimum and can add onto the principal during the one-year term. We offer a premium rate (was 5%, and now is 3%), and we limit the principal additions to $5,000 because this is for the small saver; I didn’t want large savers to drop a large sum simply for the premium rate. Our success in getting more small savers to take advantage of this offering is mixed. If one has no money to save, how will they be able to make future loan payments?Finally, when one examines the times when many credit unions were established (this is our 75th year!) it is a great contrast to today. Then people came together for the common good. Their efforts were to make it better for all and better than it would be without the credit union. Today, people have become more focused not so much on the common good, but what’s good or what’s in it for them. This overriding sense of self-interest is a contributing factor to why we, as a movement, likely have less member loyalty now than perhaps anytime in our history. Hopefully through our efforts to help people in these times, we will earn greater member loyalty and a greater appreciation for what a credit union is and our members will emerge stronger and better able to really move ahead.Keep up the good work.
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