Banking Desert? Not So Fast, Says Great Lakes Credit Union.

While the cooperative is focused on filling financial services gaps in the Chicagoland area, a host of community partners are working to meet other needs.

Top-Level Takeaways

  • Great Lakes Credit Union partners with local organizations to identify and address the needs of Chicago’s underbanked residents.
  • Recently, the credit union became the banking partner of a revitalization effort for a neighborhood that lacks financial, grocery, and healthcare providers.

Approximately 13.5 million people in the United States have limited access to nutritious food, according to data from the USDA.

These “food deserts,” however, touch upon just one of the many basic resources marginalized communities struggle to access every day. In Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, Great Lakes Credit Union ($1.3B, Bannockburn, IL) is helping to tackle the problem of credit invisibility and inadequate financial services that come with banking deserts.

The low-income credit union has teamed up with The Leaders Network, a grant-based collaborative of faith and community leaders working to improve the quality of the life for the Greater Chicago area and its West Side communities.

Steve Bugg, CEO, Great Lakes Credit Union

The credit union’s mission-related work and HUD-certified counseling made it a natural fit for The Leaders Network, says CEO Steve Bugg. Now, GLCU is training staff — including a HUD-certified counselor and a business development manager — to serve the neighborhood.

“We’re also in negotiations to open a small branch to serve residents and small businesses and to offer on-site counseling,” Bugg says.

GLCU and The Leaders Network worked together for more than a year to ensure strategic alignment in the partnership before the credit union officially stepped into the role of financial services provider for the group’s Austin efforts. In addition to a small, co-branded branch and full-service ATM, the network also plans to bring in healthcare providers and a grocer to serve the community.

“We believe addressing these three deserts — financial services, grocery, and healthcare — will give the Austin neighborhood a spark of opportunity,” Bugg says. “Small businesses will be able to make deposits down the street. We’re already seeing restaurants pop up, and we’re happy to be a part of this broader Leaders Network effort.”

A History With HUD

GLCU is one of six credit unions nationwide that offers HUD-certified counseling for free to anyone in the community, Bugg says. Those HUD counseling services have proven critical — and highly in demand — for the greater Chicago area. So in demand that the State of Illinois recently funded a fourth round of housing and rental assistance. Throughout the program’s tenure, GLCU’s HUD counselors have had access, through grants, to these funds to assist credit union members as well as the community-at-large.


Great Lakes Credit Union
DATA AS OF 12.31.22

HQ: Bannockburn, IL
MEMBERS: 78,517
ROA: 0.72%

During 2022 alone, the credit union’s team of seven HUD-certified counselors completed 618 counseling sessions, helped 123 homeowners complete applications for the Illinois Homeowners Assistance Fund, engaged with 74 mortgage servicers, completed 656 indirect services on behalf of homeowners, and reached 467 attendees through in-person educational sessions and webinars.

“It’s more than just products and services for us,” Bugg says. “If we can provide counseling to assist with affordable housing, it’ll benefit residents, businesses, and the credit union. We want to be a collaborative partner that is strategically driving change in the diverse communities we serve.”

Of note, GLCU drives change through community connections that extend beyond housing. In the early days of COVID-19, the credit union partnered with the Lake County Community Foundation, which brings together local non-profits to make a greater impact in the communities it serves. The issues and initiatives the foundation addresses continually expands; as such, so do the opportunities for GLCU to make a positive impact. In fact, GLCU’s work with the Lake County Community Foundation was a driving force behind The Leaders Network decision to partner with the credit union in the Austin revitalization.

Focusing on change and committing to underserved populations meets the credit union’s mission. It also has provided an avenue for creative funding.

“When we partner with other nonprofits and other funders, we have greater amounts of money to work with to make a bigger impact,” Bugg says.

For example, when Illinois had unused HUD grant funds, GLCU was a natural candidate to receive them based on the credit union’s comprehensive reporting, which demonstrated how GLCU regularly exceeded the program’s projected results.

Another benefit of GLCU’s social impact programs and LICU designation is access to deposits from large, publicly traded companies — such as Coke, Amazon, and Patagonia — looking to invest in financial institutions for social mission work. These deposits earn GLCU’s regular certificate rates up to the insured limit.

“It’s almost too good to be true, Bugg says. “It’s helped us round out our strategies. The social impact work is all intertwined.”

A Niche Like No Other

As GLCU celebrates its 85th year, Bugg reflected on the state of the credit union when he joined five years ago.

“When I asked our board and employees then how we stood out, I got nothing,” the CEO says. “Focusing on the impact we can make in our community has helped us identify who we are, what we are, and how we’re different from banks, fintechs, and even other credit unions.”

Bugg advises leaders to step back and be intentional in forming their strategies.

“If mission work is within your credit union’s strategic goals and objectives, then find those partnership opportunities to develop and make it happen,” he says. “There are lots of opportunities out there —  industry leaders just need to get out of the office and out into the community to find them.”

Of course, everybody across the credit union must embrace its mission and the work it does to meet that mission. Without that enthusiasm, the credit union will be missing an integral component for success. At GLCU, Bugg kick-started the cooperative’s mission work, but his fervor quickly spread throughout the organization.

“As the visionary, I look for opportunities and bring them back,” he says. “My leadership team now does a lot of that, too. It’s important to develop others and have someone at the organization driving the mission work forward.”

How To Lead With Purpose

Does your credit union serve its members and community in ways that set it apart from other financial choices? Rethink your role and responsibility to members, employees, communities, and the environment with Sustainable Business Strategy, a virtual learning experience Callahan & Associates offers in collaboration with Harvard Business School Online.
February 27, 2023

Keep Reading

View all posts in:
More on:
Scroll to Top
Verified by MonsterInsights