Renewing Our Credit Union Zeal

In a speech to the Development Educators graduating class, USA Federal CU CEO Mary Cunningham expresses her belief in and commitment to the credit union difference.


The following includes portions of a commencement speech Mary Cunningham gave to the Development Educators graduating class.

From an industry perspective, credit unions are doing quite well. We’ve hit the $700 billion mark in total industry assets. We now have about 87 million members using credit unions. Our loan to share ratio is a healthy 76 percent. Our average net worth ratio have climbed to 11.05 percent. Delinquency hovers around 0.65 percent. Average ROA for the industry is about 0.96 percent

For 20 years in a row, credit union members consider themselves “more satisfied using credit unions than banks or thrifts,” according to The American Banker, an independent newspaper poll.

The credit union industry has truly grown up. We no longer resemble the mom & pop operations of the early 1930’s. Credit unions of those days were operated by volunteers, out of shoe boxes, closets, and trunks of cars. They were the light at the end of the tunnel for post-depression era folks looking for relief from the high priced bankers and loan sharks in town. We flourished and gave unscrupulous lenders serious competition.

Credit unions have evolved and adapted and responded to their members’ demands and are now sophisticated financial institutions, still member owned, still not for profit, still with volunteer boards, still one member – one vote.

The future of credit unions may be bright. But then again, we may be witnesses to the greatest test of our system in the near future. As a strong and vibrant system, we must safeguard the best of our system while remaining open to those changes that will strengthen us without compromising us.

In our quest for growth and success, we must be careful that we don’t gain the whole world and lose our members in the process. For what good can come to a system that boasts 87 million members if 86.5 million of them think they’re doing business with a bank that has a funny name?

The challenge we face as credit unions is that, as an industry, we’ve done a poor job in engaging our members to understand what credit unions are and how we make a difference.

To our detractors and critics, most of us look and act just like banks. We offer a full service bank-like menu, including trust services, investment products, business services, etc. Single common bonds are no longer the norm. We still don’t pay income taxes, yet our earnings are strong,

We expand our fields of membership to take in huge populations in major cities yet have no CRA regulation to prove that we’re serving them. Large credit unions are gobbling up small ones to the tune of 400 per year on average.

As a person who has passionately served in credit unions for over 30 years, I am gravely concerned about our movement. Recently, a colleague and I were talking about movements. He framed the issue like this: If you’ve ever studied a “movement”, most of which have a religious basis, you know that they have their origin in an ideal or belief that starts with a few people, generally called zealots. These people sacrificed and believed in something with all their being. The ideal spread like wildfire and found roots as it resonated with others.

Over time, the ideal began to evolve and required updating to remain relevant with folks of the current day. Subsequent generations brought in folks from other industries who weren’t necessarily told the original story of the founders. This new external force brought about compromise and dilution. Which brings us to today’s credit unions in this country.

Ladies and gentlemen, history might lead you to believe that we’re in the last days of our “movement”. But I believe it’s worth fighting for, and I hope you do too. You see, I think there are some fundamental beliefs about credit unions that are important to uphold.

I believe our tax exemption is essential to keeping our focus on service rather than profit. And I believe we should be leveraging that tax exemption every day by offering the better value for consumers in our pricing.

I believe in volunteer uncompensated boards. And I believe in one member – one vote. And I believe that every red-blooded person living in America deserves the right to join a credit union, regardless of where they live or who their employer is or what language they speak.

I believe the common bond is formed when a person walks into a credit union and lays down their $5 to join a credit union along with all the other members using it. And I believe in community accountability for credit unions, in being good corporate citizens, and in serving all walks of life. And I believe credit unions make a difference each and every day in the lives of our 87 million members, even if they aren’t quite sure how we do it.

But credit unions in this country are suffering from an identity crisis with their members. Will we preserve the movement as we know it? I don’t know. But hopefully our zeal will at least prolong it. And that’s worth doing.




Nov. 7, 2005


  • Mary: Right on! One question--in 1965 CU's membership equalled half the work force, which equalled half the US population. Today we have 87 million members, workforce of 150+ million and population of 300 million. We will be successful when we serve more than half the work force. Too much going after the low hanging fruit. Wylie Dougherty
  • Great speech, Mary. Congress is on the movement's backs to prove that we are serving the underserved, from the smallest CU right up to Navy FCU. Given the proliferation of database marketing and importance many CUs have placed on building data, this should be any task for us to take, to show how much we lend to the underserved versus general pop versus banks, or to show our share of share accounts for the underserved versus the bank's share of deposits, etc. I just wish someone would take the leadership to compile this informationand share it with our Congressional detractors and the banking lobby and shut them up.
  • Great Article. But the fall of the all Banks and Credit Unions will be from the ever increasing fraud trends.
  • This article truly defines the problems facing our industry as evidenced by the recent congressional hearings. I firmly believe that the way we are going we are destined to see CRA a very real thing for credit unions as a whole; and taxation for larger credit unions. While I sincerely hope that this doesn't happen, I know that if we don't do something now to change our image we are in serious trouble.