Developing the right community partners for your credit union

If you were to walk into the small, rural credit union in my hometown, you’d likely notice the wall of photos proudly displaying the credit union’s long-time support of their local 4-H youth members. A youth outreach program of the Cooperative Extension Services, 4-H provided me with numerous opportunities to learn about agriculture, health, science, and civic engagement growing up. While you won’t find my photo on my hometown credit union’s wall anymore (I called to double check), the photos give you a great glimpse into the strategic investment the credit union is making in their members lives and that of their community. 

While my hometown credit union has found a great partner in 4-H, it can be difficult for many credit unions, large and small, to determine which nonprofits and community organizations to throw their support behind. This is especially true as more nonprofits are beginning to ask for a larger piece of your credit unions sponsorship/donation dollars each year. No, you’re not imagining that … 

The nonprofit sector is one of the fastest growing industries in the nation. Between 2005 and 2015 alone, more than 1.56 million nonprofits sprang into existence in the United States resulting in a roughly 10% growth rate, according to the Urban Institute. This stands in stark contrast to the 2-3% growth rate of the for-profit sector in that same time frame. 

With so much competition, how can you ensure that your credit union’s sponsorship/donation dollars are being well spent? 

Aligning Your Mission, Values, and Impact

Consider the case of my hometown credit union and their choice to invest in their local 4-H youth members. As my colleague and fellow 4-H alum Robbie pointed out to me while discussing this article, there are a lot of parallels you can draw between 4-H and credit unions. Take for example the pledge said at the beginning of every 4-H meeting – ‘I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.’ 

Seriously! How many of those same values does your credit union share? 

When considering an organization to support, your credit union should be highly cognizant of the organization’s mission, values, and impact on the community. In general, the attributes, goals, and overall success of a nonprofit should work in tandem with those of your credit union. Making sure those elements align often means doing a bit more research and analysis beyond just a basic website search of the organization. Fortunately, sites like charitynavigator.org and guidestar.org can help you evaluate the value of a potential nonprofit partner based on a number of factors, including transparency and financial reporting. This will help ensure you’re creating a mutually beneficial relationship for your credit union that has buy-in from employees and leadership. 

Ensuring Employee/Member Buy in 

Speaking of buy-in, just because a nonprofit partnership seems like a great opportunity to you,  doesn’t mean your employees or members will agree or even care. If you’re not careful, this could be a major blow to your credit union’s reputation and brand. After all, you don’t want to be the credit union that agrees to organize a credit union-wide fundraiser for a local nonprofit and then only raise $20. 

Whether you’re fundraising for the Children’s Miracle Network or planning to participate in a local Bowl-A-Thon, it’s important to ensure your employees feel engaged and connected with the organizations your credit union chooses to support. One of the best ways to do this is to give your employees opportunities to weigh in, support, share, and even organize your credit union’s donations/partnership with nonprofits. To that end, many credit unions and organizations have taken steps to form philanthropic steering committees and/or volunteer teams run completely by their employees. Not only does this help build company culture, but it can also increase productivity and even decrease turnover in some cases. 

Consider What Makes Your Credit Union Unique   

In today’s business climate, doing “good” is no longer a bonus for a business, it’s an expectation. Unfortunately, this shift in mentality is making it harder for credit unions to stand out from the rest of the financial and business community for their good works. Developing a top-down approach to corporate social responsibility can help your credit union differentiate itself, while also making it easier to leverage your credit union’s brand identity when selecting non-profit partners.

Often, this means taking a holistic look at your community, analyzing the needs that exist, and determining whether or not your credit union has the capacity and foundation to help fill that need. If you’re unsure of what approach to take, consider going back to your roots. If your credit union was originally chartered to serve city and county employees, partnering with your local Police Activities League could be a way for your credit union to take a more active role in helping your community deter juvenile crime; at the same time connecting your credit union to its history, culture, and brand. 

If done right, partnerships with nonprofits and organizations should offer a unique way for your credit union to promote and encourage growth for marginalized and underbanked individuals in your community. This article from Forbes offers some great insight into the benefits of combining a good corporate social responsibility policy with nonprofit partnerships. 

Build Intentional, Reciprocal partnerships 

In a word, sales. With any partnership, it’s always important to think about your bottom line and how your investment is likely to pay off for your credit union and its members in the long run. That being said, don’t be afraid to wheel and deal with the nonprofits and community organizations that come knocking on your credit union’s door. You might be surprised to learn that many nonprofits are willing to work with your credit union to make sure you get what you need/want out of a partnership. This is especially true of smaller nonprofits that tend to be more agile when it comes to kickstarting a new sponsorship or donation. 

Be sure to develop a plan before you start negotiating. You should know exactly what you want out of each partnership, be it media coverage, brand awareness, community development, etc. At the same point, don’t be afraid to walk away if the nonprofit or community organization just isn’t the right fit for your credit union, or is unwilling to negotiate. During my time spent in credit union marketing, I experienced numerous instances when walking away from a sponsorship yielded a more fruitful opportunity the next time around. 

Choosing the right community partners for your credit union shouldn’t be a stressful experience. Instead, it should be an exciting opportunity for your members and employees to engage in an act of social good. With a well defined strategy, you can rest easy knowing that your team is developing the best partnerships for your credit union.

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