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Almost five years ago the Virginia Bureau of Financial Institutions adopted a regulation permitting state-chartered credit unions to expand membership to underserved areas.The move basically gave Virginia’s state-chartered credit union the same opportunity to reach out to those areas as their federally chartered peers, and state regulators used the same definitions and maps as the NCUA.David Miles, senior vice president for credit union development at the Virginia Credit Union League, said state-chartered credit unions felt disadvantaged when they didn’t have that option, and the new rules passed with “relative ease as a parity measure.”“From my observation, I would say credit unions have embraced the option, and it has been good for them as they look to serve their communities. Further, I think it enhances their ability to serve existing members in a larger market through branching and growth.”He cited BayPort Credit Union, formerly Newport News Shipbuilding Employees Credit Union, as one of the first to reach out into underserved markets. Since then, he added, BayPort has converted to a community charter covering those areas.Within the past year, he added, Virginia Credit Union-historically a government employees’ credit union-has added a number of underserved markets to its field of membership.“For them, assisting the underserved is a means of further reaching out into communities where they had existing members and improving their ability to serve those existing members. They recently adopted a payday lending program.”Even so, Miles speculated that penetration into underserved communities is probably somewhat slow because credit unions first have to win acceptance by people who are not already using mainstream financial providers.As for the impact of the current economic slump, he said, “It has likely created greater demands. With high unemployment, there are more people of low and modest means. There’s probably greater demand for this outreach. Alongside that demand is a greater challenge for financial institutions who want to step up at a time when they’re facing higher delinquencies and charge-offs and slim profit margins.”Glenn Birch, director of public and media relations at Virginia Credit Union, noted that VACU began expanding into eligible communities in 2007 and 2008. Localities that were added included Richmond, Petersburg, Fredericksborough and three counties. Since then Hopewell and Cumberland County have joined the list.“Approval from the regulators came through as a result of a thorough application process with pretty stringent requirements for serving those members,” he said. “The criterion includes such things as high levels of unemployment and lower median household income.“The purpose for us, of course, is a way of providing helpful, affordable financial services to more people. We feel we’re making a difference in the lives of our members.”Even so, membership growth from the underserved has not been dramatic, Birch indicated. But the number of branches has been expanded in a couple of the eligible areas, benefiting not only underserved members who have joined but offering more convenience to existing members.As the field of membership broadens, marketing becomes challenging, he noted. People in the target communities aren’t necessarily aware they’re eligible for membership in Virginia Credit Union.“One of the ways we’ve succeeded at sharing that news, as well as serving people who need service, is through partnerships,” Birch explained. “One of the more effective ones has been with public libraries in the city of Richmond. We have provided financial education programs in a number of library branches.”“We’re serving not only our members, but residents of the community who are finding out about our financial education offerings. There’s been solid attendance, and I think current economic conditions have probably gotten people’s attention. They want to know how to handle their finances in a challenging time.”–[email protected]

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