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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

More Than Writing Checks

Kevin Day

Kevin Day says banks — including Florence — responded strongly to rising food-insecurity needs during the pandemic.

Banks and credit unions have long touted their role in supporting local nonprofits through philanthropic efforts, but those efforts took on more urgency over the past two years, especially in areas such as food insecurity and other basic human needs. But even before the pandemic, these institutions were giving back in ways that went well beyond writing checks, from participating in fundraising events in the community to promoting a culture of volunteerism among officers and employees. In other words, the needs remain numerous, but so do the ways to address them.

 

 

When it comes to philanthropy, Kevin Day, says, Florence Bank’s overall goal never changes.

“We just try to be resilient and strengthen our communities and nonprofit sector,” said Day, the bank’s president and CEO. “We don’t necessarily go out year after year and do the same things; we tend to respond to the needs that arise, and needs in the community ebb and flow each year. Certainly, the last two years with COVID, we’ve responded to what the needs are and basically evaluated requests as they come in and tried to find the ones that have the broadest impact.”

The most obvious such need — one that many banks made a point of focus over the last two years — is food insecurity. Since the start of the pandemic, Florence Bank has donated at least $140,000 to organizations addressing that issue.

“We supported many local pantries and survival centers because the pandemic ramped up that need,” Day said. Meanwhile, “other organizations couldn’t run their normal events or even run the services they normally do. The way we managed our donations was responding to needs as they grew, and we were able to respond in a bigger way than normal.”

Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing at UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, said it’s “in the DNA” of credit unions to invest money back into their local communities, and his institution does so in four main ways: writing checks to nonprofits, running donation drives, encouraging volunteerism among employees to help out community organizations, and financial-education programs that empower members in their financial lives.

“We had new requests coming in that we never had before because of agencies that were feeling an impact from a surge of families and individuals needing support because of the pandemic.”

Some of the events UMassFive typically supports, such as Will Bike 4 Food and Monte’s March, which both support the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, took on new importance during the pandemic, while the credit union also raised $16,000 last year for the UMass Cancer Walk and Run, bringing its total support of cancer detection and prevention through that event to around $160,000. It has also made a 10-year, $100,000 commitment to CISA to help people access healthy food through farm shares.

Meanwhile, members can use their ‘Buzz Points’ from a debit-card reward program, typically redeemable for gift cards at local establishments, to donate to area nonprofits instead, Boivin said.

“We’ve really tried to play that up over the past couple years because there’s so much need in those local organizations, and not everyone has the means to support them by writing checks, so, just by doing normal shopping, they can donate points earned from the program.”

On what Boivin calls the “roll up your sleeves” side of the bank’s efforts, members and employees provided 350 pounds of personal items to food pantries and the Amherst and Northampton Survival Centers last year, collected hundreds of winter coats for people in need, while continuing to participate in events like the Connecticut River Conservancy’s Source to Sea Cleanup.

“During the pandemic, we were thinking creatively about what else can we do that’s different than what we’ve done in the past to support different folks,” Boivin said. “In some cases, it was really kind of doubling down on our efforts because the needs jumped more than expected.”

Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president and chief banking officer at Westfield Bank, agreed. He said that, during the pandemic, the bank has received requests for help for many new organizations, as well as different kinds of requests from nonprofits it has assisted in the past.

“We had new requests coming in that we never had before because of agencies that were feeling an impact from a surge of families and individuals needing support because of the pandemic,” he noted. “We looked at every agency we didn’t know and looked at how they were doing things to support people. It might have been people we already gave to before, like the Boys and Girls Club of Westfield, that was doing something new and different.”

The bank was able to support many of these new requests through what he called a ‘reallocation’ of resources, especially when it came to events — and there were many of them — that were canceled because of the pandemic.

Moving forward, he said the bank has increased its budget for giving in 2022 to support events and organizations it has backed for years, if not decades, and also support some of those new, pandemic-related requests that won’t be going away any time soon.

 

Expanding Needs

Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank (MSB), said the bank has long supported the basic needs of people in the community, whether that’s food, shelter, clothing, or education, to name a few. “We look at the basic needs first, and then we look at community development and youth. We try to spread money around to as many organizations as we can. And need plays a major role in those decisions.”

The nature of the pandemic, and how it isolated people and disrupted the economic well-being of families and forced them into challenging situations, certainly changed the calculus of those efforts, Moriarty noted. “I think it exacerbated the need to help people with their basic needs, even more than during a normal cycle, outside of a pandemic. Again, with so much need out there, we strive to eliminate it.”

PeoplesBank recently announced a record level of charitable contributions in 2021, with donations reaching $1,315,000 over the past year with a total of close to $11 million donated since 2011. The bank has doubled its donations in the last five years.

“During the pandemic, we were thinking creatively about what else can we do that’s different than what we’ve done in the past to support different folks. In some cases, it was really kind of doubling down on our efforts because the needs jumped more than expected.”

“We do have funding focus areas, as we call them, that are probably similar to other banks,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, listing among them economic development, food insecurity, housing, social services, sustainability and the environment, and literacy (both early-childhood and financial).

“I would say 90% of our grant requests fit into one of those categories,” he said. “The other category is community, which is anything that doesn’t fit another category. For instance, fireworks or First Night Northampton — things that are good for community spirit.”

The bank has donated meals to frontline responders during the pandemic (as has UMassFive and other institutions) and PPE, actions which are unique to the current environment, but most people negatively impacted by COVID tend to fall into one of PeoplesBank’s traditional philanthropic focus areas, like housing needs, food insecurity, or social services.

“We’ve given to specific COVID causes as they’ve come up over the past couple of years,” Bannister said. “We’ve done that over and above the normal giving we do anyway.”

He noted that, “even giving what we give, we’re still not able to give to everyone who asks; the needs out there are pressing.” To further address those needs, the bank’s employees donate 10,000 volunteer hours per year, and 74 of them have served on 54 different nonprofit boards.

Florence Bank takes pride in similar efforts, Day said. “We encourage all our officers to be part of the nonprofit community in some way. And our employees are involved in roughly 125 organizations in the area, as board members, volunteering at events, and so on.”

Monson Savings Bank recently announced that its employees donated $8,880 to various local nonprofits in 2021 through the bank’s Team Giving Initiative Friday (TGIF) program.

“Western Massachusetts is not only the bank’s home, but home for many of our team members,” Moriarty said. “We work here, live here, and raise our families here. We are invested in the well-being of the local landscape and ensuring that our neighbors’ needs are met.”

Through the TGIF program, bank employees elect to donate $5 out of each of their paychecks to employee-selected nonprofit organizations that support the bank’s local communities. Since the program was launched seven years ago, MSB employees have donated a total of $45,170 to various charitable organizations.

“The TGIF program is just one example of our employees holding up the bank’s value of helping our neighbors in need,” Moriarty went on. “I often refer to us as a team here at Monson Savings. The TGIF program is a true team effort. Participants of this program donate just $5 out of their pay, and each donation comes together to create a large impact.”

 

Mission Driven

O’Connor said Westfield Bank, like other institutions, looked at new and different ways to support the community as a result of COVID, with many of them being public-health-related.

As one example, he cited the bank’s support of vaccination efforts in Springfield in a partnership effort with the Basketball Hall of Fame and other entities.

“We offered some support to help draw some bands and other kinds of entertainment to the Hall of Fame so that people would then hopefully go in and learn about vaccination, and hopefully get vaccinated, if that was their choosing,” he noted, adding that there were other initiatives with the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and other agencies working to meet growing needs during the pandemic.

Boivin stressed that part of UMassFive’s community support stems from its financial-empowerment workshops, which have traditionally been offered at branches during the evening and sometimes during lunch hours.

“One silver lining of this pandemic is that it really forced us to get into the virtual world, opening those workshops up to a greater pool of people who might not get into our branches,” he said. “We had people from a much wider range of locations because we put content online and they could log in from home and don’t have to trek over to a branch.”

The workshop topics range from budgeting essentials to understanding credit to the basics of homebuying 101 — “quite a range of topics that all directly support our mission,” Boivin added, noting that these efforts and those directly supporting nonprofits all stem from the same philosophy.

“Even by giving out loans to people buying their first car or their first home, all those big life events, we play a role in the community,” he told BusinessWest. “Part of playing a role in the community is keeping more dollars local, investing in local organizations, and at the same time amplifying the mission of the credit union to better the financial lives of the people we serve. It takes many forms.”

Day agreed. “Community banks are in the same boat. Our employees are here, we all live and work in the community, and we all have a vested interest in making sure our community thrives.”

Unlike larger institutions whose management or directors don’t necessarily have a personal stake in the community, “for us, it’s a very important connection,” he added. “The decision makers are all here in the community. We’re not giving to places we don’t know. We see people impacted every single day, so there’s a tight connection between a bank like ours, where all our customers come from the local community, and our local organizations.”

Moriarty said Monson Savings Bank turns 150 this year, and he’s been looking at documents from the institution’s founding, which drove home MSB’s place in the community and why philanthropy is important, whether in a pandemic year or … well, a more normal one.

“Community banks were established to help people. They’ve always followed that mission,” he said. “We’re here to help the community; our mission is to help people save and prosper, but also to help the community wherever there’s a need, and we take that to heart.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Checking on the Community

Paul Scully

Paul Scully says much of Country Bank’s philanthropy in 2020 was directed at “COVID-related initiatives.”

Paul Scully says local philanthropy is baked into the DNA of this region’s financial institutions.

“Banks have always been great about supporting communities. And we are fairly philanthropic,” Country Bank’s president and CEO added, noting that the bank gave $1.3 million to local nonprofits last year, touching about 400 different organizations in some way.

Those numbers aren’t atypical. What made 2020 slightly different is where that money went.

“Of that, about a half-million went to what I would call COVID-related initiatives,” Scully said, citing causes ranging from equipping frontline workers at hospitals to meeting soaring demand at local food banks due to the pandemic’s economic impact on families.

At Freedom Credit Union’s April board meeting — the first one after it and the region’s other banking institutions closed their doors in mid-March — President and CEO Glenn Welch said he asked to make larger monthly donations to the community than usual.

“I told them, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we need to support the community.’ The board agreed and allocated a chunk of money that we could utilize in the community.”

In the days that followed, Freedom announced a donation of $55,000 to be dispersed among several community organizations at the front lines of the local fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, including Baystate Health Foundation; Mercy Medical Center; Cooley Dickinson Health Care; the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts; Hampshire Hospitality Group, whose Hampshire County Heroes feed first responders in Hampshire County; and Feed the Fight, an initiative of Peter Pan Bus Lines and area restaurants to feed healthcare workers and first responders in the community.

“If you’re still employed with no interruption in your household income, you might not realize a lot people were living on a shoestring, and that shoestring broke. The opportunity to donate and give back is huge.”

“A lot of those are things we haven’t done every year,” Welch said, noting that the credit union’s philanthropic contributions were up 17% from 2019 to 2020, even though it was a tougher financial year for financial institutions.

It’s a story being told across the region — not that banks and credit unions are being more generous this year (although, in many cases, they are), but that the pandemic has revealed different needs, causing a shift in where those grants are being targeted.

In September, for instance, the Berkshire Bank Foundation contributed an additional $1 million — over its $3 million total annual grant budget — to collaborative efforts supporting nonprofit organizations responding to rising community needs, including MHA, the YMCA of Greater Springfield, Western Massachusetts SCORE, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, among others.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our local communities in ways that no one could have predicted, and the economic impact has created significant challenges for organizations who help so many every day,” said Jim Hickson, Berkshire Bank’s Pioneer Valley regional president.

The foundation’s grants have supported community-based organizations in the areas of housing, food security, health supplies, student aid, small-business assistance — all needs that have been heightened by a pandemic whose impacts will continue to be felt well into 2021.

 

First Response

Some of the earliest contributions from banks and credit unions, at the start of the pandemic, were targeted to hospitals and first responders. Country Bank donated $250,000 to four local hospitals, and also gave $50,000 to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department’s First Responder Recovery Home, which provided a safe haven for doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, firefighters, and corrections professionals who were diagnosed with COVID-19, but couldn’t safely go home to recover without jeopardizing the health of a vulnerable family member.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

“I told them, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we need to support the community.’ The board agreed and allocated a chunk of money that we could utilize in the community.”

As the pandemic evolved and other nonprofits began reshaping their missions to respond to it, Country Bank directed funds to organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, Springfield Rescue Mission, and Friends of the Homeless, as well as similar organizations in the Worcester area.

PeoplesBank’s charitable giving in 2020 surpassed its previous record high, totaling $1,300,000, and benefiting 292 different nonprofits in the region. While the long-standing funding priorities of PeoplesBank include education, community vibrancy, and environmental sustainability, support in 2020 also included donations to COVID-19 emergency relief funds, purchases of PPE for frontline responders, organizations fighting food insecurity and homelessness, and many area youth groups and early-childhood education centers.

“We try to say ‘no’ as infrequently as possible,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility — even though last year’s needs definitely widened, especially considering that many nonprofits gain much of their funding from annual events that never happened.

“When the COVID hit the fan, we said to all our nonprofits we had agreements with, ‘we are going to honor all our commitments, even if you can’t hold your gala or your walk. The money’s still yours,’” Bannister said.

“The event may go away, but the need doesn’t,” he continued. “On one hand, if they don’t have the event, they don’t have to spend money on it, so that’s good. But these events are money makers. They were counting on this revenue. The visibility we get from these events is nice, but the real reason we do it is to support that cause, not because they put our logo on a T-shirt.”

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister

“The event may go away, but the need doesn’t. On one hand, if they don’t have the event, they don’t have to spend money on it, so that’s good. But these events are money makers. They were counting on this revenue. The visibility we get from these events is nice, but the real reason we do it is to support that cause, not because they put our logo on a T-shirt.”

 

Kevin Day, president and CEO of Florence Bank, said his institution had no inclination to take back money spent to support such events.

“COVID drove everyone indoors this year, and a lot of events got canceled,” Day said. “We usually sign up for events, and we send money ahead of time. The nonprofits all reached out and said, “we’re not going to hold this ball or gala. Do you need the money back?’ But we’re here to support you, and the fact that you can’t throw a ball actually makes it more important that we support you. So even though we didn’t get to go to these events, we still made the donations; that didn’t change a bit.”

Later in the year, as nonprofits scrambled to find other ways to raise funds, banks looked for new ways to support them, Bannister added. “Like, the Community Foundation put together an emergency COVID fund — there’s a new need. We contributed to buy PPE for the frontline workers — that was something that wasn’t a need before. And a number of chambers put together microgrant programs for the members in their communities, with a special round of fundraising for that, and we supported that, too.”

 

Food for Thought

Like PeoplesBank, Florence Bank directs its philanthropy in a few general ways.

“We’ve always focused on what we call the three H’s: hungry, hurt, homeless. We thought food-insecure people having trouble getting food and buying food might be a big deal this year, so we said, ‘hey, let’s do everything we can in that area, if possible,’” Day said, adding that Florence has made good on that pledge by supporting 11 different food pantries and homeless shelters.

“We’ve always supported many of these organizations,” he was quick to add, but cast a wider net this year, donating nearly $100,000 to 10 organizations that address food insecurity.

Kevin Day

“We’ve always focused on what we call the three H’s: hungry, hurt, homeless.”

“We are so grateful. Without the support of donors, we would not have been able to continue our mission,” Ruben Reyes, executive director of Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen & Pantry in Chicopee, one of the recipients, said in December. “COVID has affected us very hard. All of our fundraisers were canceled, and we were very worried about how to fund our programs.”

Compounding the problem, COVID-19 has also affected Lorraine’s clientele. Reyes said he is seeing an additional 200 to 300 families each month, and provides a month’s supply of groceries and dinners five nights a week to a total of 600 to 700 families. “We’re seeing a lot more families who typically would not need pantry services. They are coming to our doors for the very first time.”

Meanwhile, Scully noted that a Greater Boston Food Bank report that food insecurity in Massachusetts reached an all-time high in November. The state has experienced a 59% increase since 2018, representing more than 1 million people in need of food assistance. Most people are using food pantries for the first time.

“We’ve seen the demand at the food banks, and in so many other different areas,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Country has donated more than $130,000 to local food pantries throughout the year. “We’ve always supported local food pantries and food banks, and we made significant contributions to them as well. Everyone is feeling the demands are greater than ever.”

As another example of the way financial institutions have rallied to the cause of food insecurity, Freedom Credit Union partnered with its members and the local community in December by matching funds donated to benefit the Pioneer Valley USO.

Located at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, that organization provides more than 102,000 pounds of food to more than 3,200 individuals annually through the Emergency Food Pantry, among other efforts.

“We’d heard that some of the people who serve us in the military are having trouble feeding their families, and the food pantries need to be stocked,” Welch said. “It’s pretty sad when people in the U.S. have to be going to the food banks, with the loss of jobs due to COVID. A lot of people are hurting this year.”

All the region’s banks and credit unions helped customers who were struggling financially in other ways as well, such as mortgage and loan deferrals and relief loans.

“All the institutions did a lot to help members by deferring payments and coming up with loan programs,” Welch said. “It’s important to help people out, and we’re still doing that.”

 

Community Partners

While food insecurity and other basic needs are front of mind these days, banks and credit unions support a host of other nonprofits as well, many of which rely on performances, events, and member activity to pay their bills. Many of these were able to pivot to virtual events to maintain connections with the community until they can go back to live events, but those don’t bring in nearly as much funding as in-person gatherings.

Through its philanthropic efforts, Scully said “what we try to do is help communities thrive, whether it’s economic health, physical health, or nutritional health. Put all those pieces together, and these communities will thrive. If there’s a need and we’re able to help satisfy some of these needs, we’ll do our part to the extent we can.”

That attitude, at most local financial institutions, extends beyond monetary donations into volunteerism, Bannister noted.

“We’ve averaged about 10,000 volunteer hours across the organization pretty consistently for the past four or five years,” he said, adding that the total in 2020 was closer to 5,000, due to organizations moving to remote operations and events being canceled. “That wasn’t from a lack of desire; people were concerned about going out in public, so there was a lack of opportunity. We expect that to come back this year as things start to open up again.”

At an employee giving campaign in November, the bank actually had more associates give more money this year than ever before, Bannister added. “That could have gone the other way. There’s a lot more economic insecurity out there. So that, to us, was a sign that folks are still engaged, and they still want to give.”

While nonprofits have cut back hours and volunteers can’t always come in, especially at organizations that deal with an older population. “people have been creative,” Scully said. “We work once a month with the Ware mobile food pantry. We were there the week before Christmas, and that had upwards of 300 cars coming in. They turned it into a mobile experience. There’s a group of us there, you’re outside, masks on. It’s a way to give back, volunteer, and be safe.”

After all, he added, people want to help, and so do banks.

Day said the outpouring of concern was so great in 2020 that some nonprofits actually weathered the early months of the pandemic well.

“In March, maybe the first week of April, I think my supposition would have been that everyone is going to be hurting instantly,” he said. “But I’m involved in several nonprofit boards, and across the region, many are saying their needs have been met, in my view, pretty well.”

But 2021 poses a trap of sorts.

“The critical aspect is coming in the next year,” Day said. “Many of them received a great deal of donations during this past year, and we’re happy to do our part. I think the needs will come as the recovery moves along this year, once the perception of need goes away.”

That’s because human needs are still great among families that come to nonprofits for help, especially those in the lower economic strata who have experienced economic devastation. “They’re going to need continued support, and I expect that need will continue through 2021, easily.”

Scully agreed. “The needs are greater than the average person realizes. If you’re still employed with no interruption in your household income, you might not realize a lot people were living on a shoestring, and that shoestring broke. The opportunity to donate and give back is huge.”

And will remain so going forward, Day added.

“We gave more money this year than we ever have, sprayed it around, touched every aspect of the nonprofit world,” he said. “People know we’re a good partner of the community, and we’re happy to help out those in need.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Members Only

Katherine Hutchinson says members expect a credit union to be attuned to their needs.

Katherine Hutchinson says members expect a credit union to be attuned to their needs.

Although myths persist about what credit unions are, their leaders are cheered by statistics showing that 43% of Massachusetts residents belong to one. But they know members aren’t satisfied with mere messaging; they want the high-tech tools available at larger banks, melded with a culture of personal service. It’s a challenge they say they work hard to meet.

Michael Ostrowski has made a career in credit-union leadership, and the numbers startled even him.

Specifically, it’s the statistic that 43% of the population of Massachusetts is a credit-union member, compared to about 33% nationally.

“That’s huge. I was surprised by that,” said Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union. But after considering it, he wondered why that 43% figure should be a shock at all. “I’m surprised more people don’t take advantage of credit unions, from the fees and everything right down the line. We are typically a better deal, and you don’t see any of these credit unions in the newspaper like a Wells Fargo.”

By that, he meant the financial turmoil that many national banks brought upon themselves at the start of the Great Recession — a crisis that actually led to marketing opportunities for credit unions, said Katherine Hutchinson, president and CEO of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union.

“We did see growth throughout the recession,” she told BusinessWest. “We wanted to make sure we were not letting our members down by not lending through that period, but we were also very conscientious about how we were spending our money — all the things good financial institutions do to protect the interests of their shareholders and, in our case, our members. That’s really important to us, and I think it was a time where people were taking a second look and saw credit unions as alternatives.”

The lobby walls at UMassFive’s Hadley headquarters are adorned with messaging touting the member-centric (don’t call them customers) philosophy of credit unions, and, “believe me, we try very hard to follow the philosophy,” Hutchinson went on. “I’ve been at the credit union for 42 years — I’ve kind of grown up in the industry. When I started, we were very focused on the member, and I’ve tried to convey that and live that philosophy as we grew bigger.”

Credit unions are financial institutions that look and feel like a bank in the products and service they offer, she explained, but the difference is their structure as cooperatives.

“Because of a credit union’s non-for-profit status, consumers do expect better rates and lower fees, and I think that’s what they experience,” she said. “But they also want us to be focused on what they need, on how we can help them personally — to listen to their story, hear about why they’re in a certain situation, and what would really help them.”

Glenn Welch says local leadership means credit unions can respond to members’ concerns quickly.

Glenn Welch says local leadership means credit unions can respond to members’ concerns quickly.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, said member ownership of the institution is important to those who do business there. “Whether you have $5 in your account of $500,000, it’s one member, one vote,” he said, adding that members of his board of directors must hail from the four western counties. “The board is local, so members know we can make decisions and resolve situations quickly.”

Resolving situations, and writing more success stories, is a point of pride for UMassFive, Hutchinson noted. “I think it’s important that we hear those stories and share those stories to encourage our employees to listen to the members and find ways to help. The stories are important.”

Numbers Don’t Lie

The story for credit unions has been positive in recent years, Ostrowski said, pointing to statistics like a capital-to-assets ratio of 10.4%, on average, for credit unions in Massachusetts. “Over 7 is well-capitalized — we’re over 10. That shows strength in the credit-union industry.”

Meanwhile, the 167 credit unions in Massachusetts employ 6,158 people full-time and another 908 part-time, and boast more than 2.9 million members — again, about 43% of all residents.

Still, myths persist about credit unions, Welch said, sharing four common ones identified by the Credit Union National Assoc.

The first myth: “I can’t join.” CUNA points out that many Americans believe they are ineligible to join a credit union, but membership eligibility today is typically based on geography, he noted. Membership at Freedom Credit Union, for example, is available to anyone who lives, works, or attends college in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire counties.

The second myth: “accessing my money may be hard.” Not true, Welch said, noting that, along with boasting a mobile application for online banking, many credit unions, including Freedom, have joined the Allpoint Network, allowing members surcharge-free ATM access at more than 55,000 retail locations worldwide.

The third myth: “they’re too small.” Rather, he noted, credit unions provide the same security and protection of a larger financial institution, but is accountable to members, rather than shareholders. “This means every customer is treated as an individual, not a number, enjoying personalized service and customized products.”

The final myth: “they’re primarily for those in need.” Based on generational notions, Welch explained, some may believe credit unions mainly serve low-income consumers. In truth, he added, they serve every population, as well as every size and type of business.

Essentially, he told BusinessWest, the CUNA survey demonstrated that many people don’t understand what membership means and how to go about applying to be a member.

“Several things came up; one was that they didn’t feel that credit unions can offer them the level of technology and products of banking institutions. But we had a good year in 2017 and approached the board with quite a few investment upgrades,” he noted, expanding the tasks that can be done online, like electronically signing for loans.

“People don’t want to set foot in a bank or credit union lobby unless they have to,” he continued. “We have the same products available at bigger banks, but at a local level.”

Ostrowski agreed that credit-union members appreciate the institution’s purpose and philosophy, but also demand current technology. In fact, Arrha is in the process of upgrading all its systems to improve electronic communication and its mobile banking platforms.

“I think the credit unions are still filling that void of the banks that had their roots in the small towns, and that really hasn’t changed,” he said. “But I think it’s important that people realize that we have the same systems all the big banks have, and we have the same cybersecurity functionality they do. Clearly, from a systems standpoint, we can compete very well with them.”

Michael Ostrowski says credit-union members expect the same high-tech products they can find at large banks.

Michael Ostrowski says credit-union members expect the same high-tech products they can find at large banks.

Likewise, Hutchinson noted that the area colleges the credit union was built upon still form its core membership group, but it wouldn’t have grown beyond that without a recognition in the region of the credit-union philosophy — and without a commitment on the institution’s side to stay atop trends in products and services and continually invest in technology. “That is important to growth and our sustainability, so we’re proud of that.”

Loan Stars

Ostrowski said messages like this — and a vibrant economy — have helped Arrha grow steadily in recent years, with deposits up, loan delinquency down, and investments in technology helping to attract new members.

Meanwhile, Welch noted that the competitive interest rates Freedom pays on savings accounts and charges for loans have both attracted new business. All that led to growth in 2017 in return on assets and total loans, as well as hiring a second commercial lender and a credit manager, focusing on individuals and small businesses.

“Typically, we don’t lend more than $3.5 million or $4.5 million, although we could, based on capital,” he noted.

But the credit-union presidents BusinessWest spoke with all noted that the model’s philosophy doesn’t stop at dollars and cents, but extends to a robust community outreach, often in the form of educational seminars.

“That goes to the concept of people helping people,” Welch said. “We find, when we’re not able to help someone, it’s usually a credit issue, and often, they haven’t been educated on the value of credit. So we participate with other banking institutions in Credit for Life fairs, reaching out to students when they’re still in high school to talk about good and bad credit, and what that means when they try to buy a car, rent an apartment, or get a credit card.”

Hutchinson said her board believes community education is important to UMassFive’s mission. “So many people need that kind of assistance. It ties back into what is best for our members — educating them on how to make decisions.

“Financial literacy is key,” she went on. “We try to have a variety of topics, from understanding your credit score to budgeting to preparing for retirement and first-time homebuying. We also work with UMass, doing some seminars for students on student debt.”

Ostrowski noted that even recent college graduates don’t understand their credit score and the impact it can have, while others take advantage of a credit-card offer in the mail and quickly wind up thousands of dollars in debt without thinking about the consequences. “All our programs in financial literacy are drivers that we make no money on — they are absolutely out of love of our members and to protect them.”

The credit-union culture runs deep in Massachusetts, the state where such institutions were first chartered way back in 1909, Ostrowski explained. State partnerships are still critical, he added, noting that Gov. Charlie Baker has backed an effort by the state’s credit unions, called CU Senior Safeguard, to fight elder financial abuse and fraud. All frontline credit-union staffers are participating in the program, while a statewide effort is targeting consumers with information about how elders are defrauded — a problem that costs some $10 billion every year nationally.

“I’ve heard wild stories about members getting ripped off by contractors,” he said, or individuals who were ready to send money to an unknown e-mailer on the promise of more in return. “I’ve literally had to argue with individuals not to send their money away.”

Better, he said, to deposit it with a credit union — and join that 43% number that, in an age of constant mergers and acquisitions among area banks, only continues to grow.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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