How credit unions can be vehicles for democracy.
Only a short while ago, I’d never heard of the World Council of Credit Unions. Today I’m the chairman of the board of directors.
What happened? Two life-changing trips opened my eyes to the remarkable good the credit union movement could do around the world.
About a dozen years ago, I visited a small, indigenous village in Ecuador with my wife, Michelle, to learn about the international work credit unions were doing.
I’d been a credit union executive for nearly a decade and knew all the good they did for their communities: They answer to their account holders, not their shareholders (they don’t have any). They elevate volunteerism and community engagement in their operations. They give more money back to the people in their communities.
That was all well and good. But only after seeing it from a global perspective did I realize how much I’d been missing.
As we made our way through the village, we found the residents all gathered in a community room: all the men on one side, women and children on the other. The reason for their grand welcome, we discovered, was the movement we represented.
A massive flood had recently wiped out most of the village. The key to rebuilding their city, they told us, was the local credit union. It lent them the money that helped individuals build businesses, families rebuild homes and government build schools.
Steve Stapp and associates in Colombia
The credit union, in their eyes, was much more than a financial institution. It was a lifesaving link to their community.
Deeply inspired by the trip, I began hosting foreign delegations at my credit union in California. We’d teach our visitors how credit unions worked in the U.S. while learning about their challenges at home. I shared with neighboring credit unions how our movement could improve quality of life around the world.
Together we began to realize the good credit unions could do in the global community. They not only lend people money to start businesses and provide for families, they also allow them to save money. Saving money enables people to send their kids to school, afford medical care, gain social mobility and become financially independent. It enables them to build a better life for their children than they had themselves.
A few years after my trip to Ecuador, just after the fall of Libyan state leader Muammar Gaddafi, Libyan nationals reached out to the World Council seeking to adopt the credit union system in their country. A small group of us visited Libya to brainstorm with business leaders and government officials.
Though they were energized at the thought of installing a credit union system, they were still skeptical. “If you bring your credit union here,” we would hear, “when will we own something we can call our own? We want something made by our people, for our people, run by our people.”
We couldn’t assure them quickly enough: “We’re here to teach you how to run your own credit union. We will help you set it up. You will manage it going forward. It belongs to you and the members of your community.”
Skepticism led to shock, which became enthusiasm. From Latin America through Europe and into Asia, I have gotten this same response almost every time. Disbelief is understandable for peoples not accustomed to the liberties we take for granted here in the U.S.
Credit unions, I came to learn, were not merely financial institutions. They were vehicles for democracy, providing citizens a more free and independent life for current and future generations.
However, the credit union movement is not embraced everywhere. Some cultures don’t value these ideals, and some countries lack the infrastructure needed. In Libya, in fact, the system never launched successfully.
In post-conflict countries such as Libya and Ukraine, circumstances conspire against citizens’ financial growth. Strained economic resources, governments that centralize wealth and power, and violent ethnic conflicts all prevent citizens from engaging in a cooperative financial system. These conditions are deep-seated and difficult to shift.
These challenges inspire us to redouble our efforts and deepen our dedication. Several years after my trip to Libya, I became CEO of Unitus Community Credit Union in Portland. The Portland metro area, in addition to being a beautiful place to live, is teeming with concerned citizens who share this mission. “What would happen if we extended our compassion and stewardship beyond our local surroundings to our worldwide community?”
We in the U.S. are uniquely equipped to make change: A contribution that’s relatively small to us can make a huge impact on thousands of lives elsewhere in the world.
Just as we fight for financial independence for individuals in our communities, people in other nations desire financial independence too. Let’s not forget —people in these countries supply many of the goods and services we enjoy every day, including our clothing, food, mechanical equipment and more of the things we take for granted each day.
Our movement derives strength from its people and, in return, makes people stronger. If you ask me, that’s something worth fighting for.
Steve Stapp is the CEO of Unitus Community Credit Union