Stepping Up to Support Credit Unions Fighting the COVID Crisis

(From Credit Union Times) – The nation’s credit union leagues have been filling the critical roles of helping credit unions manage through the unprecedented challenges created by the coronavirus health and economic crisis. The trade groups quickly sprang into action in March despite not knowing quite how to respond, and they adapted along the way, learned valuable lessons, developed best practices, and collaborated with their league partners. Now, they’re preparing with confident optimism to keep credit unions on track for growth regardless of what the future might bring.

“What’s next? Where are we going to end up? We will cross that bridge when we get there because we know that this whole COVID situation has proven the resiliency of the credit union movement,” Emily Leite, SVP of Advocacy for the Ohio Credit Union League, said. “I think we are going to go through waves of this, but I am looking forward to getting to the other side of it with credit unions [continuing to do] all of the cool things they do for their members every day.”

The first state trade to meet the many challenges of COVID-19 was the Northwest Credit Union Association, which serves more than 175 cooperatives in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

“The Northwest was the nation’s first COVID-19 ‘hotspot’ with the earliest confirmed cases diagnosed in Washington. We worked quickly to create the playbook, focusing on our member credit unions’ and their members’ needs,” Troy Stang, President/CEO of the NWCUA, said. “Because we were first impacted, we shared what we were doing throughout the league system, during AACUL meetings, by sharing access with other leagues to our resources website and inviting other leagues to participate in our membership meetings. In the spirit of collaboration, we also invited the handful of Northwest credit unions that are not NWCUA members to attend our meetings and they did.”

The trade organization navigated pandemic response in four phases: The onset, the transition, business reassessment and alignment, and future-focused management.

“At the onset of the pandemic, we immediately reimagined service to and collaboration with our members, as it was quickly apparent that COVID-19 meant we would convene differently,” Stang said. “On Sunday, March 15, we held our first virtual meeting with more than 200 Northwest credit union movement leaders, where we began assessing the impact of the pandemic, and how we could provide credit unions with the knowledge and tools they needed to repurpose their services to their teams and members. This initial meeting was ahead of the ‘stay home’ orders issued by the governors in our states. Our forums met twice weekly during the first three months, and we continue to convene at least monthly today. In addition, on that day, we stood up regional huddles for NWCUA liaisons to meet weekly with credit unions located in the same communities. The regional huddles provided, and continue to provide, a platform for sharing resources and information.”

Somewhat ironically, Stang observed that the association has never felt closer to its member credit unions even though it has been months since they’ve been able to gather in person.

Facing a Pandemic on the Heels of a Merger

For Patrick Conway, President/CEO of the CrossState Credit Union Association, 2020 started off strong, as he was looking forward to a brand new chapter of officially launching his newly-formed trade group that resulted from the merger of the Pennsylvania Credit Union Association and New Jersey Credit Union League.

“We were introducing a new trade association to our members in both states and then, like everybody else, had to go remote,” Conway said. “We sent everybody home on March 16. That really changed our planning for how we would continue to build relationships with our credit unions and interact with them, even from a new organization standpoint, let alone just the regular servicing and providing resources to our members in those states. I think our team did a good job pivoting quickly for what we thought would be a two-week remote period, which has now turned into seven months or more. They did a great job proactively meeting the needs of our credit unions in both states as those needs continued to evolve throughout the pandemic.”

Because CrossState serves 518 credit unions of all asset sizes, the association held customized webinars for those with similar asset sizes and in similar circumstances. Executives discussed ideas and best practices for how they were dealing with pandemic-related challenges. The webinars also hosted legal, regulatory, and other staff experts to answer questions and provide guidance.

While the state trades take a lot of pride in consistently delivering effective advocacy initiatives, Conway observed the pandemic enhanced CrossState’s advocacy efforts.

“We’ve seen much more collaboration not only amongst ourselves in the credit union industry, but also with other industry and business organizations,” he said. “For example, in addition to collaborating with the banking trade associations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, we also worked with the local chambers, the state chambers, and trade associations representing other industries, because in many cases we had similar views. Those coalition efforts I think led to great advocacy successes as well.”

The League of Southeastern Credit Unions found itself in a similar situation earlier this year, as COVID-19 hit a few months after it closed its consolidation with the Georgia Credit Union League. LSCU currently serves 333 credit unions in Alabama, Florida and Georgia.

“LSCU was quick in its preparation for a possible COVID-19 situation,” LSCU President/CEO Patrick LaPine said. “By the time President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, we had already formed a COVID-19 task force to monitor the situation. Around the same time, the communications team launched the league coronavirus resource center.”

On March 20, the league held its first webinar designed to support credit unions through the pandemic, which was attended by more than 200 credit union employees from the three states. Because it has been successful in helping credit unions address coronavirus challenges, the league continues to hold this weekly webinar today.

“As we worked internally and with our member credit unions to weather the pandemic, the league noticed struggling small businesses in many of our local communities,” LaPine said. “The Southeastern Credit Union Foundation created the Credit Unions Care Challenge, a program supported by 75 credit unions that has raised more than $925,000 for deserving local businesses and charities.”

Shifting to Virtual

The Heartland Credit Union Association, which serves 185 credit unions in Kansas and Missouri, also sprang into quick action, posting on its site a comprehensive resource page back on March 2.

“It soon became a one-stop shop for credit unions with 250-plus resources,” HCUA President Brad Douglas said. “Our communications shifted to [being] pandemic-related only to ensure the most valuable information was reaching our credit unions. We worked around the clock to ensure laws and regulations included credit union-friendly language and met with every legislator and government agency multiple times.”

Although the HCUA had an in-person event scheduled for March 24, the trade group managed to turn it into a virtual event within days. The association then transitioned nearly 20 events to a virtual platform, including its convention and annual meeting, which it hosted in partnership with the Illinois Credit Union League.

The virtual two-league convention, called Boost, was held over three days in late September and attracted more than 750 credit union representatives from 91 credit unions in Kansas, Missouri and Illinois.

In addition, Boost hosted nearly 25 speakers, whose presentations included focused deep dives and diverse demos, plus a virtual exhibit hall with 40-plus exhibiting companies. A joint lunch session facilitated small-group conversation using Zoom’s breakout session feature. While credit unions were able to participate in joint sessions together, each league also hosted several league-specific sessions.

“Shifting from an in-person convention to an online environment is no easy task, and our leagues worked together to make it happen,” Douglas said.

Ramping Up Communications

Tom Kane, President/CEO of the Illinois Credit Union League, which serves 238 credit unions, called Boost a spectacular success. Also proving successful, particularly during a crisis, has been an aggressive communications strategy, Kane noted.

“What we eventually came to call town hall calls, we were having initially two or three times a week,” Kane said. “In the morning we did the large credit unions and the afternoon we did the small credit unions. We split it because the issues they were facing were very different. There were so many things happening at the state level, and we have the most state-chartered credit unions of any state, so it was a big deal for our credit unions.”

The town hall calls also featured Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), NCUA Board Member Todd ¬Harper, Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs and other top officials.

“I spend a lot of time writing and summarizing topics and answering questions because I want that information to get out to the CEOs,” Kane said. “In the past I typically would only do a newsletter once a month, but now I literally sometimes do a newsletter every day. Credit unions appreciate it because there is so much going on.”

Todd Mason, President/CEO of the Maine Credit Union League, said his organization has also been leveraging an aggressive communications strategy to keep in constant contact with the state’s 54 financial cooperatives. Its virtual town hall meetings have featured top officials such as Maine Governor Janet Mills, NCUA Board Chair Rodney Hood and others, who have led discussions to support and help credit unions through various COVID challenges.

Behind-the-Screen Advocacy, Networking, and Education

Leagues’ advocacy initiative-related meetings also had to switch from in-person to virtual.

“We, like most, have transitioned to virtual meetings with members of Congress and most state lawmakers,” Dan Schline, President/CEO of the Carolinas Credit Union League, said. “However, we’ve experienced no less connectivity. In many of our virtual meetings we have found lawmakers are particularly focused and attentive as we’ve shared information about the great work credit unions are doing, and their challenges and opportunities as we move into 2021.

The CCUL serves 124 credit unions in North and South Carolina.

Though the trade associations have successfully transitioned their advocacy, education, and communication initiatives to virtual platforms, Rick Pillow, President/CEO of the Virginia Credit Union League, said creating rewarding networking opportunities remains a challenge. However, the organization has been making some headway in that area for the 116 credit unions it serves.

“Our membership has long identified our networking opportunities as an important value delivered as part of league ¬membership, and during the past couple of months we’ve provided informal virtual networking meetups for our credit union HR staffs, marketers and young professionals,” Pillow said. “Members are appreciative of these efforts, but obviously, we all long for a return to in-person networking opportunities.”

One of the biggest lessons learned for the Cornerstone League – which was formerly known as the Cornerstone Credit Union League and serves more than 552 credit unions in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas – was that it had the ability to rapidly adapt, become more nimble and accelerate its efforts to respond to the crisis.

“Within a week of the pandemic declaration, we were hosting weekly webinars and virtual roundtable meetings that gave us insight into the struggles that our members were facing, while allowing us to share breaking news,” Cornerstone League President/CEO Caroline Willard said. “Almost overnight, we created a feedback loop for member communications that had seemed like a pipe dream prior to the pandemic’s onset.”

What’s more, the Cornerstone Foundation launched the Pandemic Response Strategy, a program designed to help address issues caused by the pandemic and create a sense of community and financial well-being. The strategy encompasses four components: A toolkit for financial counselors, a financial counseling certification program, free one-on-one financial counseling, and affordable e-learning.

The Mountain West Credit Union Association, which represents 141 credit unions -throughout Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, also rapidly shifted most of its communications channels to a virtual platform.

“We have shifted 90% of our education programs to online – including bringing in the latest options to assist with the pandemic and its impact,” Scott Earl, President/CEO of the MWCUA, said. “We were able to offer eight specific regulatory webinars to help members and created 20 new COVID-19 education programs, [which are] all offered virtually.”

The association’s fall Hike the Hill sessions also went virtual, were renamed “DC From Your Desk” and facilitated greater credit union participation.

The MWCUA’s foundation also participated in partnerships with local food banks that were experiencing increasing demands from consumers. Through the foundation’s COVID Relief Program, $250,000 was donated to 17 organizations throughout communities in Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming.

Providing Community Reassurance and Aid

Leagues also played a critical role in promoting messages throughout their states that credit unions were safe and sound institutions that anxious consumers could rely on amid COVID’s uncertainties.

“Early on, there was a lot of consumer concern about safety and soundness, so we initiated a cooperative advertising campaign and ran pretty extensive ads to reassure consumers that their deposits were federally insured, and that credit unions were open for business and serving their needs,” Dave Adams, President/CEO of the Michigan Credit Union League, which serves 213 credit unions, said. “For the second half of the year, we’re running ads now about what credit unions are doing to help members save money and make smart financial decisions. Everyone is looking to save money, whether it’s because someone in the household lost their job or [because of] other financial pressures from the uncertainties of COVID.”

The ads are working, Adams said, because the league has seen a surge of consumer traffic at the CU Link site where visitors can view more information about Michigan’s credit unions. The league has also seen very high levels of click-thru rates on promotional videos posted to social media sites. It also shared the videos with credit unions to use in their efforts to reassure members.

In addition to reassuring nervous consumers, the state trades played a key part in helping their member credit unions keep track of how they were helping members in need in their communities.

“We developed and distributed a survey every week that strategically targeted the areas where credit unions were delivering real-time tangible financial relief to their members,” Diana ¬Dykstra, President/CEO of the California and Nevada Credit Union Leagues, which serves 306 credit unions, said.

This included questions related to mortgage forbearances, consumer loan extensions, business loan extensions, emergency COVID-19 loans, fee waivers, and business loan/grant facilitation via the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

“Doing so helped us immediately quantify with one powerful voice to state legislators, the news media and society at large how our credit unions were stepping up daily for their members and communities,” she said. “We told our credit unions’ member relief story in both states through our news relationships, news releases, real-time data and advertisement spots. We distributed relevant and useful news to statewide consumer media, as well as statewide political and trade media that state and federal lawmakers read. Having been in discussions with their respective staffs, we showcased how we worked with and honored requests by California Governor Gavin Newsom’s office and Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak’s office – as well as state regulators – to have credit unions offer major immediate financial relief to members. We especially spotlighted the positive financial impact that these discussions had on local consumers.”

The Cooperative Credit Union Association, which represents 202 credit unions in Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, also leveraged the coronavirus crisis to promote the credit union difference.

“Our Better Values, Better Banking consumer awareness campaign has been prominent in all four of our states, reaching millions of people and raising consumer awareness of how credit unions are assisting members,” Ron ¬McLean, President/CEO of the CCUA, said.

Leagues also helped prove credit unions are better banking options for consumers, as they were instrumental in helping credit unions meet the deluge of PPP applications for their business members.

Leite of the Ohio League said staff members spent many long, hard hours interpreting the SBA rules and other provisions to enable businesses to apply for and secure their PPP loans to make it through the pandemic shutdown.

“We wrote guidance quickly and got it off to our credit unions when the PPP program went live so our credit unions had something in the arsenal to help their members,” Leite said. “I was really proud of the CUNA league system and the Ohio League at that moment in the sense that nothing else mattered at that point in time to make sure that we got it out and got it right for our members.”

In collaboration with other organizations, the league also worked with the Ohio Congressional Delegation to allow privately insured credit unions to offer PPP loans to their members. Those credit unions were inadvertently left out of the PPP legislation provision that defined eligible lenders.