A Strategy To Express Social Values. Every Day. All The Time.

Even the most basic principles of a credit union’s work are worth celebrating. This credit union tells its story while engaging its community.


Top-Level Takeaways

  • Receiving CDFI and low-income designations in 2010 prompted Freedom First Federal Credit Union to take a fresh look at its mission statement.
  • Under its revamped statement, Helping People Prosper, Helping Communities Thrive, the credit union has sharpened its story-telling skills and refreshed its brand. It also has started publishing a community impact report.

Freedom First Federal Credit Union($716.1M, Roanoke, VA) has worked diligently during the past decade to hone a messaging strategy that touts the social value and community impact of its work.

Through its multiple partnerships with local non-profits, the credit union realized the key to recruiting more diverse board members involved positioning the organization as more than a source of free checking accounts and used car loans. Instead, it needed to differentiate itself as a valuable and socially responsible community partner.

Here, Paul Phillips, CEO of Freedom First FCU, shares how his cooperative promotes its social value and why other credit unions should consider sharpening their own message, too, regardless of CDFI, low-income, or other designation status. After all, concern for community is a core principle shared by all cooperative organizations.

Paul Phillips, CEO, Freedom First FCU

How Does Freedom First FCU talk about and communicate the depth of its social value?

Paul Phillips: For us, it starts with having boots on the ground and developing advocates in the community. We serve on a lot of community boards to understand the needs that exist, and our own board members constantly share our story with their networks.

The relationship between our marketing and community development teams is also important. We create a community impact report every two years, and we’re constantly producing stories that show the value of our work. As an organization, we have gotten pretty good at gathering stories for grants. Being able to use them to differentiate ourselves and emphasize our value more broadly is icing on the cake.

These stories motivate funders to engage in our programs. They attract potential board members who feel passionate about the work we’re doing, and they help us spread the word throughout the community to attract new partners and new members.

Do you produce the impact report in lieu of a traditional annual report, or do you produce both? How do you distribute the impact report?

PP: Our annual report is now quite thin and more of a clinical exercise to satisfy requirements. We spend a lot of time and effort on the impact report it has a lot more emotional pull than traditional annual reports with audited financials.


Freedom First FCU
Data as of 06.30.20

HQ: Roanoke, VA
ASSETS: $716.1M
MEMBERS: 56,255
12-MO LOAN GROWTH: 10.7%
ROA: 0.57%

As far as distribution, digital is the most readily available and efficient channel. We’ve gone so far as to create a video brochure to highlight high-profile projects on which we’re the lead lender and connect with an affluent part of our community. We’ve also interviewed well-known individuals to talk about the importance of community-sourced capital in redevelopment and why banking locally is socially responsible. This also helps our commercial team, who might win a deal by presenting our impact report or other compelling stories.

We always send hard copies of the report with a cover letter to our elected officials. This makes them aware of what we’re doing so they can reach out to us if things come up in a space where we can help.

Does the credit union distribute a lot of press releases or joint press announcements with community partners?

PP: Yes. When noteworthy things happen, our marketing team pushes out content. We also apply for various awards to create opportunities to share our story. You have to toot your own horn because that kind of notoriety matters. If your credit union is doing good work, make people aware of that. When you are on people’s radar, you have the chance to differentiate your credit union in the community.

The credit union became a CDFI in 2010. Did this cause you to re-evaluate your mission statement and tagline?

PP: Like a lot of credit unions, we have toyed with our mission statement in the past. It was long and clunky, and people couldn’t remember it. We wanted something that was easy to remember and explained what we’re trying to achieve. Our current mission statement, Helping People Prosper Helping Communities Thrive, came about around the same time as our CDFI designation.

We adopted our tagline, Where People Bank for Good, about five years ago when working with an agency partner. We love it. It speaks to our mission as a credit union and as a CDFI.

Credit unions need to share the good work they are doing and take the opportunity to retool or repackage other programs.

Paul Phillips, CEO, Freedom First FCU

Can more credit unions share their positive community impact in a similar way to what Freedom First is doing?

PP: Yes. It’s important for credit unions to take a fresh look at their work. If you’ve been in the industry a long time, it’s easy to take things for granted such as underwriting a $2,000 unsecured loan with a human being because that’s what we do as credit unions. However, in the banking world, that is not what happens and is becoming increasingly rare. Credit unions need to share the good work they are doing and take the opportunity to retool or repackage other programs.

We do offer some higher-risk programs, such as our Affordable Housing program, which might not make sense for other credit unions. But many credit unions share some of the same core competencies and might already offer similar programs without packaging it like we have at Freedom First. For example, our Responsible Rides program is basically a used car loan with an education component. That’s something others might already do or could easily offer.

Overall, if you focus on your core competencies and tailor the product design to serve local needs, your credit union can make it meaningful to your community.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


What has been your favorite project in this role so far?

WG: My favorite project was standing up our loan deferment programs. In the spring, we saw the impact the COVID-19 pandemic was having on our member base, and the organization moved quickly to provide relief. I was excited for the opportunity to help SECU make such an immediate and positive impact. Every time I hear a story of someone that we helped, it makes me smile.

The What’s In A Name series is one of several Callahan Collections available at CreditUnions.com. Check out this collection, then browse the collections available for disaster recovery, member feedback, community impact, sustainability, deposits, analytics, and more.

How do you track success in your job?

WG: I track it based on what we hear from our members. SECU has an excellent member experience team. They are constantly monitoring our members’ touchpoints and have a deep understanding of our members’ experiences. The optimization work we do is a direct response to those insights, and when I see improvements in those areas, I know we succeeded.

How do you stay current with topics that fall under your role?

WG: Websites like Fast Company or Inc. are good to confirm what’s emerging. The book This is Service Design Doing is a good read for those interested in User Centered Design. Back when my focus was on corporate innovation, I got value out of Gartner’s IT Symposium. Particularly the research that came from Mary Mesaglio and her team.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Job titles say as much about the organization as they do the person. Have you seen a title you’d like to know more about? Let senior writer Marc Rapport know at mrapport@creditunions.com or (202) 223-3920, ext. 504.


October 19, 2020

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