This year I was given the opportunity to attend the 2014 Principles and Philosophy Conference in Winston-Salem, NC, through a scholarship given to me by CUaware. Forty-eight others joined me for the day conference and if I could speak for everyone, this was one of the most enlightening and engaging "un”-conferences I’ve ever been to.
What do I mean by "un”-conference? We’ve all been to conferences near and far and many of them have the same set-up: General Session, Breakout Sessions, Break, General Session, Lunch, Breakout Sessions, General Session, Happy Hour, and Dinner. I’m not saying that format is bad or wrong, but those that organized the Principles and Philosophy Conference did not follow that model. We were in one room, primarily, for 2.5 days of discussion, training, and learning. Another attribute that made this conference truly unique is that the 46 of us did most of the talking. Our fearless leaders and moderators Lois Kitsch of National Credit Union Foundation and Larry Blanchard of CUNA Mutual Group, in addition to Patrick Livingston, Brandon McAdams and others, led the discussion, but it was primarily left up to the small groups we had at our table to learn from one another, share our ideas and experiences, and grow from that discussion.
So what did I learn from October 28th-30th at the Principles and Philosophy Conference? As David Letterman does every night on his late-night show, here are the The Top Ten Things I learned at the Principles & Philosophy Conference.
10. Each credit union needs to provide ice cream 24/7. I suppose those of us who attended the conference will truly understand how awesome it is to have ice-cream within arms or a stroll’s reach at all times, but at the Graylyn Center (the original estate of tobacco tycoon Bowman Gray Sr. and Nathalie Lyons Gray) they provide ice cream in the lodging and main meeting areas throughout the estate. While I realize providing a limitless supply of ice cream to your employees would take a mighty hit to the annual budget, one can dream and in this dream, there’s a limitless supply of ice cream. If you need proof of why it’s awesome, read the guest testimonials here: http://graylyn.com/accommodations/guest-testimonials.php.
9. We’ve come a long way as a movement… From the Rochdale Weavers in England, an early cooperative founded in 1844, to Alphonse Desjardins starting the 1st US Credit Union in New Hampshire (it still stands today), our movement has had many heroes along the way: Edward Filene, Dora Maxwell (who started 120 credit unions in 6 months!), and many, many others. They each had the vision and the passion to provide our movement with the motivation and the validation to continue to serve our members…
8…And our principles are still the same. The principles that guided the Rochdale Weavers in 1844 are still the same principles that we as financial cooperatives use today: Democratic Member Control, Voluntary Membership, Members’ Economic Participation, Autonomy and Independence, Education-Training-and-Information, Cooperation Among Cooperatives, and Concern for Community. If just one of those were to go away, the very foundation on which we function would be broken. While it’s good to inform out members of these, it is vital that our fellow employees know these principles. If we cannot state the principles we stand for, then how can we expect our members to know the difference in what we do?
7. Everyone has a story. It’s very easy to view our members as numbers. Other financial institutions do. You remove the risk of getting too involved and too emotional in that person’s life, so viewing them based solely on what number they represent based upon their financial behavior or history keeps you as the employee removed. But that’s not us, is it? Whether it’s a member who’s been with you for 1 month or a member that’s been with you for so long their account number is only two digits, every single one of them has a story. We are the movement that says "Yes” and "Let’s find a way.” A fellow conference attendee David Lenoir told us his story of trials and tribulations in his life and how his credit union saved his life. By hearing the story from our members and hear how we can help, we truly embody our motto of "people helping people.”
6. The competition is fierce. ApplePay. Walmart. Best Buy. Big Banks. Auto Dealers… One thing (among many) that we learned from our session reviewing "The Not for Profit, But for Service” Learning Map® is that there are a lot of entities trying to do what we do. So how do we differentiate ourselves? How do we stand apart? And the answers all lie within the cooperative principles. Easier said than done, of course, but the plan is there for us. It is up to us to put it into action and compete.
5. How to be a cooperative. Lois and Larry did an excellent job of telling us what a cooperative is and showing us different types of cooperatives throughout the country and world. Then they posed the question, "Are you acting like the cooperative you claim to be?” It was a tough question and we each had to take a hard look at our credit unions and see if and how we were acting out the cooperative principles for credit unions. You’ve heard the Aristotle quote "The whole is more than the sum of its parts." Well, in order for us to truly act out the cooperative principles, active participation is essential, from the member to the CEO.
4. Empathy. While this may tie in a lot with #7, I felt it was worthy enough to say it again but in a different way. I want to be more compassionate in what I do and this conference showed me that being empathetic can be a sound business decision for our credit union is based upon the cooperative principles "Concern for Community.” I was able to learn through our small group discussions and through many life stories how to make empathy a part of my business model.
3. We’re all in this together. Troy Hall, COO of SC Federal Credit Union and mentor of mine, frequently comments on the fact that we say we’re cooperatives but we do a poor job cooperating with one another. Chuck Purvis, CEO of Coastal Federal Credit Union, expressed to us that we are losing 1 credit union a day and barely gaining 1 per year (we had that one credit union with us with Alex Moore of Community Works FCU in Greenville, SC). I learned that is essential that we try to help one another and communicate our successes and failures. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small, medium, or large credit union, we all need to communicate better and work together for the good of the movement and our members.
2. We are activists. Listening to Larry Blanchard and the fight he wages for our movement was very motivating. He has been behind so many huge pieces of legislation that has kept our movement progressing, particularly, HR 1151, also known as the Credit Union Membership Access Act. He urged us that it is vital that we stay in tune to the hot topics of the day in Washington, Raleigh, and Columbia and to let our representatives know what we think and how we feel. Lois discussed with us the international struggle we as a movement face to start credit unions in war-torn or impoverished countries. The fight for our movement is waged daily and it is up to us to mobilize the grassroots and stand for our current and future members.
1. It’s still all about the member. We can have all the latest products and services, but if we are not meeting the needs of the member, than what are we doing as a movement? Our members trust us with their finances and their security. It is our role to sustain that trust by listening to their needs and meeting them head on. Without the member, there is no financial cooperative.
Like I said at the very beginning, this was the best "un”-conference I’ve ever been to. It was not easy choosing only 10 things that I learned. In closing, EVERY Credit Union professional could benefit from attending this conference. Whether you’re new to the Credit Union movement, a young professional, or an "experienced” professional, you will walk away with a better understanding of why we do what we do. I appreciate CUaware choosing me to attend this conference and helping me better understand the cooperative principles of the credit union.
Born in Orangeburg, SC on February 14, 1984, Will grew up in Florence. He graduated from Clemson University in 2006 with a BA in History. Will worked in political campaigns for five years in Washington, DC; Denver, Colorado, and Greenville, SC before joining the credit union ranks.
Will has been the business development officer for Palmetto First FCU in Florence for the past three years. He coordinates the credit union's community involvement and financial education efforts. In addition to his service to credit unions, Will sits on the Chamber of Commerce executive committee, Parks & Beautification Commission Member for the City of Florence, and is the 2013 Palmetto Protégé. Will also serves on the CUaware board of directors. Married since 2012, Will and his wife Lindsay welcomed Geneva, their first child, in September.