Filling the Civic Responsibility Void

Credit unions have a long tradition of doing good. But this has mainly been the doing of good among those who belonged, who were members. It's time we thought more broadly. I celebrate in our history of helping ordinary people work together to make their lives better. But, as Bob Dylan wrote, "The times they are a changin'."


To put a fine point on it, the economic texture of our nation has markedly altered. Increasing nationalization of banks in particular require new notions of helping the community.

Take my own area, Tampa Bay. We used to be served by a number of local banks. These have all been bought out and merged into larger national and regional banks, ones that do not make their big decisions in the Tampa region. SunTrust is headquartered in Atlanta, First Union/Wachovia in Charlotte, Bank of America in Charlotte, and South Trust in Birmingham.

The largest locally-owned lending institutions in the 3-million-population Tampa Bay region are credit unions. First is Suncoast Schools, second is GTE and third is MacDill. The largest local bank is smaller than MacDill.

At one time the members of the boards of directors for our banks were local citizens. They lived here; they knew the local economy and its needs. Now boards of banks that operate in Tampa meet in cities in Georgia, North Carolina and Alabama, and they have no Tampa representation.

On the surface, this does not seem so detrimental. These banks must still meet their CRA responsibilities. But beneath the surface, off-the-record and out of sight, there is much to be concerned about. I remember that in the years before one local bank was absorbed by a national one, its board used to buy 10 foursomes at $200 each for a yearly muscular dystrophy association golf tournament. Now its new incarnation buys only one or two.

This same kind of reduced participation and local spending is happening all over the area in ways large and small. Local bankers used to consider it part of their job descriptions to join Kiwanis or Rotary or the like, to participate in the economic enhancement of the region, support the children's hospital and prop up the public schools. Even the branch managers who try to maintain this tradition are in a sense fighting the tide - the headquarters to which they answer are far away and those headquarters in turn answer to Wall Street's thirst for profits.

Filling the Void
Now it is time for credit unions to step in and fill the void created in local communities by the nationalization of banks. No one else is going to do it. The civic vision of the local banks is not going to come back. Because we are the locally-owned lending institutions, we are the ones most in touch with the communities and their needs; thus we should be the ones stepping up to the plate.

In one sense, this should not be a hard step to take; in another it could be. Some credit unions have a long and honorable record of service to their broader communities, that is, the ''community'' in the sense of greater than the field of membership. But most do not. They grew up as sole-sponsor institutions focused on helping their corporate employee population. That was quite enough. We looked to our members and not much farther.

In addition, we had a tradition of resisting an image of being too charitable. An old slogan of CUNA's was ''Not for profit, not for charity, but for service.'' We were not St. Vincent de Paul Society and we didn't want anyone to think so.

But for many of us, the narrow focus of a single-sponsor credit union disappeared as we took advantage of the liberalization of the common bond. Here at GTE Federal Credit Union, we serve 1,300 employee groups. That's not the entire community, but it is a very large part of it, certainly large enough to give us the sense that being a good citizen within the broader community is not only going to bring us recognition but also raise the wellbeing of our members.

For another, we as a movement can look to a tradition of service to a broad community, not merely a ''community of members.'' Our nation's first credit union, St. Mary's Bank in New Hampshire, was a community credit union, meant to help the broad community in which it grew.

Thus we have conflicting traditions with respect to engaging in the broader community as good citizens. We also have boards that are responsible to the notion of maximizing dividends paid back to their members.

But nationalization of banks - and a similar nationalization of corporations (in our specific case, GTE no longer exists and its successor board meets in New York City) - has left a void in community-focused service. We should fill that void. Our boards and management should join the civic organizations, help fund the United Way, support the children's hospitals and the rest. Our size and success now allows us to do so.

Here at GTE we are full partners in an Enterprise Zone in which we are going to construct our headquarters and an IT center. Other credit unions across the country are also becoming local community economic leaders.

I call on all successful credit unions to shatter the old narrow focus and responsibility that in many ways served us so well in the past: A broader participation and economic development involvement is going to help members and community alike.




Dec. 5, 2002


  • Timely, significant, an eye-opener!
  • Once again, Bucky says what needs to be said, and so well, to boot!
  • It's good information
  • It's good information
  • A reminder we should all heed and act upon.