Firefly FCU connects those who have been declined for a loan with specialists who will help would-be borrowers improve their credit worthiness and pay down debt.
In 10 years, Firefly members have paid off more than $3 million in debt.
A decade ago, Firefly Federal Credit Union ($1.3B, Burnsville, MN) struggled with what to say when it fielded applications from prospective members with poor credit.
CU QUICK FACTS
Data as of 12.31.18
HQ: Burnsville, MN
12-MO SHARE GROWTH: 7.9%
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 9.4%
If we couldn’t give someone a loan, we’d say, Sorry, we are unable to do this says Geoff Bullock, community engagement and education specialist at Firefly. That was it.
The Minnesota credit union didn’t offer financial education. It didn’t have financial literacy experts, and asking staff to answer potentially life-altering questions to people in need of assistance was a tall order. But rather than continue to turn away potential members, Firefly instead turned to a trusted partner.
Lutheran Social Service (LSS) provided tax prep services to Firefly members, and in 2007, the credit union became one of the first partners in LSS’s Financial Choice program. Since then, Firefly has referred nearly 200 members to the program’s qualified financial counselors. In total, these members have collectively paid off more than $3 million in debt, according to the credit union.
In this Q&A, Bullock, who worked for LSS from 2006 until he started at Firefly in 2016, discusses the program, its effectiveness, why the Minnesota connection looms large, and more.
Geoff Bullock, Community Engagement and Education Specialist, Firefly FCU
Firefly and Lutheran Social Service’s have been working together since 2007. What makes the two organizations mesh?
Geoff Bullock: Firefly said it wanted to offer a service to members who needed help. It didn’t have internal experts, and a partnership with LSS made sense. We knew it was community-minded, and it knew from working with us that we did a good job. It was a logical fit.
How does the partnership work?
GB: Firefly members get access to six financial counseling sessions every year. LSS has qualified experts in different areas, such as budget, credit report, student loan, and housing. Because scheduling can get backlogged, Firefly members get priority access for counseling sessions within three business days of a request.
In addition, LSS offers multiple financial education classes and workshops each year for its partners. That’s how my relationship started with Firefly I presented once or twice a month to Firefly’s SEG groups or business partners.
What makes this financial education particularly effective?
GB: It’s hyper local and LSS understands the market.
If LSS tried to offer this financial education over the phone, it would be difficult. If LSS had to fly out once or twice a year to Ohio or Indiana or Kansas, that would be a huge undertaking.
It’s easier to sell the member on the value of education when they can easily come in for an appointment or find us at an event. So much of the value is in the ability to connect with people in person.
What does the credit union provide as far as time, money, or resources for in-person seminars?
GB: While I was at LSS, the only thing we would do is show up to teach the seminar. The credit union organized everything else.
They organized events for SEG and business partners, including the Mall of America. The Mall is a big deal here in Minneapolis, and Firefly put together events for staff that included food and a financial counselor. One time, the credit union ran an event for third-shift mall workers like janitors and security workers at 2 a.m. It was a challenge, but it turned out great.
Why does Firefly feel such a connection to the community?
GB: We were Minnesota’s first credit union. Our name is a nostalgic reference to our state’s fireflies and lightning bugs, especially up in the cabins. Firefly was the first Financial Choice partner for LSS and has been the strongest because of that community connection.
How does the credit union find members that need this kind of help?
GB: The biggest source is our branch staff. We have prospective members who come in with credit scores that are too low or debt ratios that don’t line up. We can’t give them a loan because it would do more harm than good. But we do have someone that can help.
What are the biggest topics for education?
GB: The two largest now are debt and student loans. When we first started, everyone wanted to talk about credit cards and credit card debt. That’s not so much the case anymore.
This interview has been edited and condensed.