Low Emissions, Big Impact

An emphasis on reducing its carbon footprint is just one part of Clearwater Credit Union’s multifaceted community-impact strategy.

Two years ago, the Missoula Housing Authority was building a 13-unit housing project that targets renters making less than 30% of the area’s median income and frequent users of the city’s emergency services. However, cost overruns were forcing the authority to scrap plans for highly efficient heat pumps in favor of cheaper electric resistance units.

In stepped Clearwater Credit Union ($899M, Missoula, MT), which partnered with Climate Smart Missoula to partially fund the more efficient heat pumps, resulting in $5,000 annual savings in operating costs for the housing authority. Through that funding, Clearwater was able to count those energy savings to offset its own carbon footprint.
“We ended up supporting a local affordable-housing project, making it more efficient, saving money for the organization, and offsetting our greenhouse gas emissions for about two and a half years,” says Paul Herendeen, director of impact market development at Clearwater.

That, along with other projects in 2020, helped Clearwater meet its carbon-neutral goals for the year — one of the pillars for its values-based banking initiative. Most of Clearwater’s eight branches have solar panels on-site or have plans to install them.

Solar panels at Clearwater branches have helped the credit union to become carbon neutral.

Fighting climate change is one of the many ways Clearwater is focusing on ways to positively impact the community. Each year, the credit union donates 5% of its net income to charities, which amounted to $755,530 going to 151 nonprofit organizations in 2021. The credit union targets that philanthropy toward three areas: empowering people, building inclusive economies, and protecting the environment.

Programs supported by Clearwater include vocational training, housing assistance, credit building, transportation, affordable housing, community childcare, and economic development, just to name a few. According to Herendeen, it’s important that community organizations don’t have to spend a lot of time to access aid.

“We have a very simple application,” the impact director says. “We don’t ask for a lot of quantification of impact. We don’t target specific programs with the giving. We’re happy to support general operations and help people in our community who are doing good work.”

One of the credit union’s longstanding programs supports refugee resettlement. Since the 1970s, Missoula has welcomed refugees from all over the world, most recently from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Afghanistan.

Rather than using disposable cups at its in-branch coffee station, Clearwater uses ceramic mugs from Opportunity Resources, a local nonprofit that allows people with disabilities to express themselves through art while also earning an income.

The credit union has also created lending programs to encourage investments in sustainability and affordable housing. For example, Clearwater’s solar loan program offers homeowners unsubsidized loans for solar panels for up to $30,000, with a 15-year term at 3.90% APR, along with no application or origination fees, and no pre-payment penalty. That program is gaining in popularity.

“We’re only about $25,000 away from hitting last year’s numbers for solar lending,” says Bill St John, senior vice president of consumer banking. “I like what we’re doing in that space. Our prices are low. We’re aggressive on term. We’re aggressive on amount. Borrowers are all homeowners. They’re conscious about the environment for the most part, and they’re all really strong borrowers.”

To support affordable housing, the credit union has expanded its business in the manufactured housing market, which makes up nearly 12% of the housing stock in Montana. With housing prices skyrocketing, manufactured housing parks have become prime candidates for redevelopment, which means residents could have the land sold right out from under them and face eviction.

Therefore, Clearwater is partnering with NeighborWorks Montana to finance resident-owned communities.

“When manufactured housing parks come up for sale, they can actually be purchased by everyone living there and owned cooperatively,” Herendeen says.

Herendeen adds that the credit union has received positive feedback from the community on its various impact programs, and it has continued to make gains in membership and deposit growth. A recent staff survey showed 90% of employees feel the credit union is on the right track.

“They said that they understood the mission, vision, and values, and felt the team is committed to putting those into practice,” Herendeen says. “Overall, the response has been overwhelmingly positive from our members, our community, and our staff.”

This is part of the “Anatomy Of A Credit Union” series, presented every quarter by Callahan & Associates. Read more about Clearwater or dive into a decade of archives. Contact Callahan to learn about gaining access today.

August 15, 2022

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