Jama Campbell On Leadership

The SECU Foundation executive director applies the solution-focused philosophy of leadership she learned in the trenches to the community impact work she now leads.


SECU Foundation
Data as of 09.30.19

HQ: Raleigh, NC

State Employees’ Credit Union ($40.9B, Raleigh, NC) is the nation’s second-largest credit union and largest state charter. It claims nearly 25% of North Carolinians as members, and true to the people helping people ethos those members fund the cooperative’s foundation through a $1 monthly contribution through their checking accounts. It’s opt-out, but almost no one does.

Since 2004, the SECU Foundation has invested more than $169 million in state, regional, and community development, funding high-impact projects in education, housing, health care, and human services.

Four years ago, the foundation named its first full-time employee, tapping the leadership of Jama Campbell, a longtime staffer with deep roots in branch management and operations. Here, Campbell describes the leadership philosophy she has developed in her nearly quarter-century with SECU and how that has translated to her work with the SECU Foundation.

On Being Part Of The Credit Union Movement…

Jama Campbell, Executive Director, SECU Foundation

I’ve been with SECU for 24 years this year. I started as a loan officer, then managed some branches before working in internal audit and then as operations auditor. I spent 10 years as a district manager for a region of branches before I took on the role as our foundation’s executive director. That’s a great thing about being with the credit union I’ve had so many different opportunities over the years.

The majority of my career has been working directly with members, which is something I enjoyed and has been beneficial in my role with the SECU Foundation. All that experience reviewing loans and making judgment calls about different types of requests feeds into what we do as a foundation. There are times when you have to say no, but we’re looking for ways to help people get where they need to be.

On Leadership Style…

I’ve always had a close connection to the leaders I’ve worked with. They made sure I was ready, then worked hard to delegate authority to me. I now carry that philosophy. Two of the three people working with me at the foundation also worked with me in the branch network. I want them to be better and smarter at their jobs, and we work toward that through training and empowerment.

I was alone at the foundation for about a year. Although it could be overwhelming, I gained a new skill set I was able to share with the new foundation staff. We’ve been able to balance the workload, which has been a real game-changer.

We also enjoy great teamwork across the whole credit union, from colleagues and members alike. For example, we have member advisory boards at every branch. They not only send us grant applicants but also help us review them. And they help us present checks to the grant winners. We’re partners through the whole process. It’s very exciting.

On Leading A Foundation…

There are a lot of similarities between managing a branch and managing a foundation. Both involve creativity and problem-solving. And in our case, the foundation draws on the resources of the whole credit union to help with much of what we do, just as the branches do in their daily operations.

We also reach out to others in the philanthropic world to learn about new methods and trends in funding and support, especially in the areas of capacity building. We collaborate a lot with other foundations.

All that experience reviewing loans and making judgment calls about different types of requests feeds into what we do as a foundation. There are times when you have to say no,’ but we’re looking for ways to help people get where they need to be.

Jama Campbell, Executive Director, SECU Foundation

On Finding Inspiration…

The credit union movement itself is inspiring. We’re people helping people, after all. And our foundation works to benefit so many people across North Carolina, it’s hard not to be inspired by that every day. My job is to try to suss out the greatest needs in North Carolina, make sure my board knows about them, and then help bring projects to life. It’s incredible.

On Creating Impact…

We receive more than 100 letters of interest a year. We look at each of them to determine how we can balance what we do geographically and across different areas of interest, from health care to housing to education. We also make sure our partners align with our philosophies and can help us take projects to scale. Finally, we look at sustainability. We want our projects to make a lasting impact.

On Creating The Ideal Team…

A foundation needs people who can do the research, of course, but ultimately it needs people who are empathetic and caring. Your team needs to be creative. They need to be independent thinkers there’s not a lot of formal structure in the day-to-day. They also need to be realistic as well as idealistic.

Callahan’s Guide To Foundations

Charitable foundations offer several benefits for credit unions, from creating a larger pool of resources for charitable activities to enhancing the reputation of the cooperative in its community. Visit CreditUnions.com to access the Callahan Collection Guide To Foundations and learn more about foundations in the credit unions community.

Read Now

You can’t fund everything. You have to be able to make decisions about where you can have the most impact, and you have to be able to communicate that. We have a lot of people to communicate with, including 7,000 or so employees, about 2.4 million members, and all the outside organizations we work with. Our network is vast. Communication is vital.

On What The Industry Needs More, Or Less, Of…

That question makes me think about a presentation my colleague recently gave. He likened the branch he works at now to the first credit union formed in North Carolina in the early 1900s. That made me think about how we essentially do the same thing we did 100 years ago. We still look for creative approaches to help people address the issues in their lives, especially their essential financial needs. We are still innovators looking to enhance what we’re doing now and finding ways to do even better in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

January 20, 2020

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