Advocacy Minimizes Risks

No Matter the Size, Credit Unions Must Know Their Legislators

When it comes to ensuring legislators understand your needs, credit union leaders must make advocacy part of their long-term strategies, even for small organizations with limited staff, say executives who spearhead such efforts for their organizations.

Without it, you could lose any edge you have with competitors, including the small and big banks in your communities, says Chris Anuswith, vice president of risk management for ABNB Federal Credit Union, which serves the Hampton Roads region of Virginia.

As part of a medium-sized credit union, Anuswith relies on a  team of volunteers — primarily board members — who take time and initiative to meet with legislators at their home districts, as well as their offices in Washington, D.C. One of those volunteers is Legislative Chair Randolyn Patterson, who is retired from active duty in the U.S. Navy and has been on the legislative committee since 2017 and chair since 2018.

“Without her support, ABNB’s efforts would not be what they are,” says Anuswith, whose career started in the 1970s and has included some amount of advocacy during most of that time.

Patterson and Anuswith maintain that advocacy begins on the local level, from town mayors and council members to state legislative leaders. Those elected officials have the obvious contacts on the grassroots level and will help support the community engagement efforts of a credit union, but they also are likely to be the people who ascend to higher office, including the national level. By getting to know them early in their careers, decades of support can be obtained on various governmental levels, say Patterson, Anuswith and others.

“It’s all about maintaining contact in your community,” Patterson says. “Letting them get to know you and letting them see your face.”

That takes time, especially when it comes to the national leaders, and it begins during the campaign process before you know who will win, says Trish Shermot, director of government affairs/regional urban development officer for Visions Federal Credit Union, based in Endwell, N.Y.

“For Visions, it’s important to know who is seeking reelection and the candidates that are running against incumbents that may be considered ‘credit union-friendly,’” Shermot says.

“To me, it’s all about relationship-building,” she says. “In the 116th Congress, we had many freshman legislators that are truly open to better understanding their constituents’ needs and being open to helping them understand the credit union difference. Most legislators want to hear about the work being done in their community, especially if it resonates with a committee they sit on or something that is close to home for them.”

She has found that legislators care about branches in their districts and how credit unions create jobs. And if you know what committees they serve on or their interests, you can better tailor your message. For example, if someone is interested in veterans’ issues or serves on those committees, talk about the products or services you have that help veterans.

“Our work is so important, and we need to hone in on our messaging,” Shermot says. “Are we contributing to financial literacy in their district? What seminars are being done that can help educate members? Things like that. Simply sharing what the credit union is already doing in their district is a great way to start the conversation.”

That often involves telling stories of the credit union and its members, but being prepared with the numbers and statistics that back up your agenda.

“Respect their time, and be brief and to the point,” Shermot says. “Know your ask, and — if they need more information — volunteer to be a resource.”

Spreading the Word

Legislators often don’t know how credit unions work, assuming they are the same as banks or other lending institutions. Because Anuswith is a credit union officer in charge of risk management, advocacy is a key component of his overall job, which is to protect the organization from all directions. Advocacy requires constantly explaining the nuances without getting frustrated, which means always remaining helpful, he and others say.

“Credit unions are different,” Shermot says. “Take our structure: We are a member-owned financial cooperative. The money that we make goes back to the members in the form of lesser fees, better rates on savings, and lower rates on loans. We are mission-driven and put the member first in our decision-making. We give back to our communities, and we are passionate about financial literacy and making a difference.”

If that passion is spread broadly, then elected officials will be aware of your importance before you meet, advocacy experts say. That means advocacy begins by properly training all staff members so they can answer questions, when they’re at work and when they’re not at work.

“Grassroots efforts start within the organization,” Shermot says. “We are best when our employees are informed and understand why advocacy is so important and what the credit union difference is all about.”

Visions has a portal on its website so employees and members can read about the issues important to the credit union. The site allows members to sign up for alerts and to find their legislator. “It’s user-friendly and actionable,” Shermot says.

Top Issues to Consider

Anuswith, Patterson and Shermot point out that many legislators don’t know about the tax rules involving credit unions, which is an example of why members on all levels need to be   patient when explaining — and then reexplaining — that issue.

Chad Adams, director of political affairs at NAFCU, says several major issues should be top of mind for all credit unions, but he agrees that legislators need to understand why the tax exemption must remain in place. “Preserving the credit union tax exemption continues to be our top priority,” he says.

Adams points out that NAFCU commissioned an independent study in 2017 to examine the benefits of the tax exemption. “It was found that removing the credit union tax exemption would lead to a $142 billion reduction in GDP [gross domestic product], cost the federal government $38 billion in lost income tax revenue and cut nearly 900,000 American jobs over the next 10 years,” he says.

Adams and Shermot say legislation important to credit unions can touch on many other topics, including regulatory relief and issues with data security and privacy. Legislation can create regulatory burdens that can be costly but not obvious, pulling time and resources away from the core mission, so it is imperative that those underlying issues are understood.

Paul Revere Award

NAFCU recognizes advocacy efforts each year with its Paul Revere Award, which has gone to both Visions Federal Credit Union and ABNB in recent years. Visions won in 2019, receiving the award at the association’s annual Congressional Caucus. ABNB won in 2017, with the late Richard Losea, former board member and treasurer, accepting for the organization.

According to NAFCU, to be considered for the Paul Revere Award, candidates must have:

  • been from a NAFCU-member credit union;
  • held at least two meetings during 2018 or 2019 with each of their members of Congress (two senators and one representative);
  • responded to all NAFCU Grassroots Alerts by completing the actions requested, such as phone calls, emails and letters to their lawmakers; and
  • been in regular contact with NAFCU for the most up-to-date legislative and regulatory information.

Shermot, Anuswith and Patterson say the guidelines offer a target for all credit unions, but their organizations often exceed the minimum requirements.

Patterson and Anuswith say credit unions — especially those far from Washington — should take advantage of opportunities to meet with legislators whenever they are in a service area, which means watching calendars for business meetings with chambers of commerce or community groups. Because they are in Virginia, it is easier for them to travel to Washington, which might not be the case for a credit union out west.

The fact that ABNB uses volunteers with its advocacy efforts can be an asset in the eyes of legislators, so the lack of big budgets or  large  staffs should not deter smaller credit unions. “It makes a big difference when someone is taking their own personal time,” Anuswith says. He strongly encourages all credit unions, especially top officers, to set up payroll deductions or other systems that support advocacy  efforts at NAFCU.

Shermot is responsible for the various congressional offices across New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, which meant hitting more than 20 separate congressional offices in the year she won the award.

“Getting to know the district director, chief of staff and legislative staff is key in being a resource to the legislator’s office,” Shermot says. “When you get a hand-written note from a congressman in New York, you know you’ve made an impact, and it’s all worth it.”

The experts also point out that the efforts never stop.

“Advocacy is a team effort, so everyone needs to take credit, but there is much more work to do,” Shermot says. “We have a robust plan for reaching out to legislators this year, and helping our staff get more  engaged with advocacy is critical for 2020. Building on our communications efforts and the foundation from the previous year, we feel we can have an impact and voice in helping educate legislators to initiate and advance forward-thinking bills in Congress.”

Thomas A. Barstow is a freelance writer and editor based in York, Pa.