A Big Idea For 2018: Asking Tough Questions

How can credit unions push the movement forward? By tackling tough questions and discovering the right, not easy, answers.

Jon Jeffreys

By Jon Jeffreys


Callahan & Associates made a resolution for 2018, and we’re sticking to it.  

In the past, each of the senior leaders at Callahan chose a big idea to explore throughout the year on CreditUnions.com. This year, we’re going all in on one big idea, and we’re using that idea to frame our discussions about the industry for the rest of 2018.   

That idea is: Is your credit union asking the tough questions?  

Some critics claim that, as member-owned financial cooperatives, credit unions are “soft,” whereas for-profit banks and other institutions bring a hard edge to the marketplace. 

Credit unions are doing right by members and their communities, and they’re succeeding financially. Third quarter credit union growth trends surged past that of community banks and the overall banking industry. Auto finance market share hit a post-recession high of 19%. Year-to-date first mortgage origination market share was 8.1% — just below the 8.6% record posted in the first quarter. The industry’s share of both revolving and non-revolving consumer credit hit new highs of 5.7% and 12.9%, respectively. And member usage of key products such as checking accounts and credit cards was also at an all-time high.

This is all good. It’s great, in fact. But more and more, it’s not enough.

There are more than 110 million credit union members out there, roughly one membership for every three Americans. Given that most consumers would be better off if they banked more with credit unions, why aren't more Americans credit union members?


The Callahan team spends a lot of time in towns and cities across the country, and we see a clear need for credit unions. Many people are still struggling and need help. 

So, why aren’t credit unions making a greater impact? 

That’s a tough question.

Maybe it’s marketing and branding. Maybe it’s how the industry articulates its value proposition. Or maybe it’s something more? 

This line of thinking drove us to consider: Are credit unions asking hard enough questions? Are the aspirations of credit unions bold enough? Are credit unions on the path to achieving their goals? Are credit unions being honest in their assessment of their potential impact?  

Answering any of these questions requires honest assessment, introspection, and consultation. It’s an arduous process, but tough questions demand nothing less, and the answers will help the credit union start today on the path toward becoming the institution it wants to be tomorrow.

Over the course of the year, the Callahan team will share different ways of thinking about tough questions. We’ll make reams of data relevant to you, our readers, and we’ll help you pinpoint what your credit union does well and what you can do better.  

Answering tough questions requires honest assessment, introspection, and consultation. It’s an arduous process, but tough questions demand nothing less. Callahan’s Strategy Lab helps credit unions think differently about how to frame challenges and develop answers. Learn more today.

We’ll share credit union success stories about credit union people who recognized challenges and found ways to meet them.  

We’ll meet with you to help you frame strategies, to help you think strategically and frame them yourself.

We’ll help you build that bridge between today and tomorrow by working together to think about what’s coming down the road and being ready for future challenges. 

It’s a great time to be a credit union. Your mission has never mattered more. We’ll help you not just talk the talk but walk the walk when it comes to the credit union difference. 

That difference is more than just words on a page. It’s up to you to show how.  

Asking tough questions is a great place to start.

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Jan. 9, 2018


  • The big questions are sometimes easier because they must be answered as part of strategically moving forward the Credit Union objectives. The "obvious" questions are being asked too, such as, "What products and services are necessary to our FOM and to engage new members?" This particular concern was posed at a meeting this week. Your Members are asking themselves the same questions as part of their research for services. They want good rates, of course, exceptional omni-channel service, absolutely - they also demand access to as many methods to help them with meeting their obligations to their families (insurance) and to you (i.e. loans). The word "necessary" takes on many forms; important to NII, to attract Members, for Member experience, to be on par with competitors with similar services, to manage data, to have an interactive online presence, to remain a relevant and versatile Credit Union? Those are the water mark questions answered uniquely and collectively by all Credit Unions. A Board's definition of necessary may sometimes not resonate with the demands of each demographic of membership and might be predicated on philosophies or prior experiences. The bridge to these tough necessary questions is formed with education, engagement with partners dedicated to Credit Union world and the shared goal to service the now 1 in 3 consumers who consider themselves members of Credit Unions.
    K. Benedict, CMG
  • Tough, honest questions are critical to starting the conversation and, more important, developing strategies that help us achieve our goals. Acceptance of certain realities doesn't prevent us from standing out and making a significant, lasting impact on the lives of people and communities. Yes, credit unions have the word "union" in our name which may carry a negative perception by association, not all credit unions think alike regarding business models and profit, we're a heavily regulated industry and our brand difference isn't easy to define, much less articulate. Focusing on these "realities" stalls conversations, focuses us internally and results in the stagnation of ideas. Asking tough questions of what we plan to do despite these realities shifts our thinking and discussions from what's been done to us to what we plan to do in order to have the impact we are capable of.
    Liz Hayes
  • Good points, both, Bob and Brian. Credit Unions are one of the greatest 'inventions' ever, but our ranks have been invaded by a for-profit banker mentality. Not necessarily bad or evil, but our service mindset has eroded, in my opinion. Now, it's 'to each his own' instead of 'collaboration for the greater good.' And that's a shame because there really was a greater good achieved under the older business models. Dog-eat-dog 'strategic' financial services have been accepted by incompetent BoDs or, certainly, directors that have no clue about our movement or its rich history. And, sadly, millennials are not filling that void. So, now we have a more competition-driven mindset instead of trying to help and serve as many people as we can, while retaining a small profit and building member-owned capital. Common business sense has been complicated by greed and for-profit attitudes, again, in my opinion. #PeopleHelpingPeople #WherePeopleAreWorthMOREThanMoney #NotForProfitNotForCharityButForService
    Brian Dever
  • Bring it on. While it won't be comfortable, I look forward to your insight about asking the tough questions. Like my favorite teachers, I also look forward to your help with at least a portion of the answers. Right? Bob, that's a great point about the "union" stigma. I think that has always been a hurdle. Like it, or not, "bank" typically implies strength and "credit union" sounds more like a club. We know our core structure is a cooperative and it takes extra explanation to highlight the strength in numbers (of contributing members). Perhaps that leads us to a really tough question...how do we overcome this stigma? Working together will get us there...and faster.
    Brian McVeigh
  • I see the number of 100 or 110 million credit union members bandied about in many articles. I and my family belong to 4 CU's. There are four of us so we are counted as 16 members. I'm sure I'm not alone. My guess is the actual number of people belonging to a credit union is closer to half the often cited number. Which brings the rest of your questions into greater focus. Why aren't more people using us? Is it our message? Are we still considered too small or do people not understand what a credit union is? Our name causes confusion. Many people still believe you need to be a union member to join.. On top of this we have to deal with a crushing amount of regulation. I got into this business, a long time ago, due to my love of lending and helping people achieve their dreams. Now I spend my days trying to achieve my dream of one day keeping up with regulations. It's a tough, competitive world out there and I worry about the future of our industry.
    Bob Boucher