By Frank J. Diekmann
There was a time when for America’s credit unions thought they had really become the “bee’s knees,” when they first began meeting in Washington for reasons that didn't involve taking a train to Union Station to get federal legislation passed or a new federal regulator organized. No, this was the early days of what we now call lobbying, and even if credit unions weren’t very good at it (I once accompanied a state delegation hiking the Hill that was asked by a congressional aide what it was they wanted, and the CUs responded, “Nothing”), CUNA began hosting a conference around something called “government affairs.” And this time it had nothing to do with the Kennedys.
That meeting would go on to bear witness each year to turning point pieces of credit union history—slowly growing attendance, deregulation, FOM “overlaps,” a Speaker of the House signing on to critical legislation, a defeat in the Supreme Court––and most importantly for the meeting, the kind of asset growth and earnings that allowed credit unions to send not just their managers turned CEOs, but multiple board members.
The credit union folk really thought they had arrived when they grew large enough to fill the Washington Hilton on Connecticut Ave., with its distinctive oval-shaped ballrooms, standing room only hallways and trade show held in the parking garage, and it was home to the annual pilgrimage for decades before the credit union army overwhelmed that space and the whole cooperative circus moved to the spacious Washington Convention Center and filled the rooms, coffers and open palms of more than a dozen hotels and their employees.
Don’t Visit Us, We’ll Visit You
And so credit unions once again returned last week at CUNA’s GAC with what the trade group pointed out numerous times was its largest attendance ever, with 5,200 nametag-emblazoned cooperators looking for some cooperation in a town not much known for it. (Like attendee counts of every type of meeting ever hosted by any group anywhere, that number counts every pulse it possible could.)
But the real measure of how the biggest credit union meeting of the year has evolved isn’t in how many come to Washington, but rather who comes to see credit unions. And when it comes to seeing credit unions, the number that really counts here isn’t that 5,200—as impressive as it might be to show off that sea of faces for any congressman–it’s these numbers: 118 million and seven million. That’s 118-million members, or 36% of the population, and $7 million donated to candidates by CUNA’s PAC in the 2018 mid-term elections (and that doesn’t even count NAFCU’s PAC). In Washington, conference attendance is almost irrelevant when it comes to what really PACs in a crowd of elected officials.
So, who came to see credit unions? At the 2018 GAC, credit unions got an audience with President Trump at the White House. This year, Vice President Mike Pence addressed a morning session. I suppose for 2020 all this leaves is Trump and Pence working the CUNA booth in the trade show.
Remember This Number
I used this space last week for thoughts around all the risks success brings, one threat being complacency, another being forgetting where you came from. There was, as you might expect, a whole lotta semi-boasting from the stage about those 5,200 attendees and the 118 million members they represent.
But there wasn’t nearly as much chatter about another number, and as I paid tribute to James Brown last week, this week we'll rock it with Three Dog Night, as the reference here is to the loneliest number: one. That’s the individual member. All the way up to Navy Federal, credit unions were built one member at a time, beginning way back before anyone knew GAC to be anything more than letters of the alphabet. Even when five-million Americans sign up as they did during 2018, they don’t see or really even care about the other 4,999,999; they see only themselves and what their credit union can do for them. CUs may not have a full-fledged fever of forgetting where they came from, but they begin running a temperature anytime they see their members, and not the other way around.
It’s great to brag about being number-one. But ultimately, it’s never forgetting the “one” that lets you keep bragging. The next GAC is set for 2020: there could not be a more appropriate time to refocus.
Frank J. Diekmann is Cooperator in Chief at CUToday.info and can be reached at Frank@CUToday.infoor @FrankCUToday.