“The prosperity of each of us depends so vitally upon the prosperity of all.”
Edward Filene, Successful Living in This Machine Age, p. 274
The roots of credit unions are in mutuality—person-to-person relationships. This was the model’s earliest competitive advantage. While conventional banks wouldn’t bother doing business with certain communities, the people in those communities knew who among them was credit-worthy, and credit unions enabled them to turn that trust into a shared business.
Today, that spirit of mutuality is coming alive again in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis. Groups have been forming around the world and across the United States, with neighbors bringing groceries and supplies to neighbors and strangers helping each other fight off the loneliness of social distancing.
As many have now noted, social distancing is itself a form of solidarity, a way to care for your neighbor, your co-worker, the child with whom your own children share a daycare, and the mail carrier or convenience store clerk who continues to work. Ultimately, it is solidarity for the health of people you do not know and may never know. Indeed, “social distancing” is a bit of a misnomer. The virus shows us just how interdependent we really are. So what’s required at this moment is physical distance with deeper social relationships—not individual withdrawal, but care, connection, and cooperation.
Many of these efforts to share and support one another are presented as heart-warming stories of individual resilience or charity: those who chose to rally donations to support local businesses, launched online classes for kids kept from school, or bought personal protective equipment for healthcare workers, are often juxtaposed with those who sought to hoard hand sanitizer.
But there’s also something more important happening, as community efforts are being pursued under the banner of “mutual aid.”
Rather than relying on existing face-to-face or geographic relationships, as early credit unions did, today people are finding each other online, often in improvised Facebook Groups and Google Docs. Many of these groups will come and go, based on the fleeting capacity of their organizers. Can credit unions help support this new surge of mutual aid, just as mutual aid once gave rise to credit unions?
Credit unions today are still member cooperatives, still committed to service and cooperative principles. But many have drifted out of the mutuality business, tending to think in terms of how the institution can reach and support its membership—rather than in terms of what members can do for each other. Many industry leaders are starting to insist that now is precisely the right time for credit unions to regain this old competitive advantage.
Many industry leaders are starting to insist that now is precisely the right time for credit unions to regain this old competitive advantage.
Members are facing, and will continue to face, a lot of hardship because of the coronavirus. This puts financial institutions at risk, too. The contours of the financial impacts on people’s lives and livelihoods are just starting to come into view. As with last year’s government shutdown and, ten years before, the global financial crisis of 2008, the COVID-19 crisis has not only thrown people into financial insecurity. It has also revealed the precariousness with which millions of people lived beforehand, and it has shown that we are only as safe and as healthy as the least supported, least protected among us.
Perhaps, through well-cultivated mutual aid, we can find creative ways for credit union members to help each other, while contributing to the health of their credit union in the process.
Ideas for how credit unions can get involved.
Find out if there are mutual-aid networks in your community and see if you can help.
Mutual Aid Hub has a map-based directory of coronavirus mutual aid groups in the United States. Is there one near you? Reach out, learn what it is doing, and consider whether your credit union might be able to help. In addition to supporting local established charities and nonprofits, your support might go even further when it is powered by creative volunteers responding to immediate needs.
Identify members’ greatest financial risks and explore whether members can help each other address them.
Explore your internal data, and ask members directly: What challenges do they see on the horizon for themselves? What needs do they share? In addition to products and services that the credit union can provide directly, is there something members can do for each other? If they could help each other with childcare (even virtually!), groceries, or even a donation, would that ease the path to making their mortgage payments on time?
Set up a digital space where members can find each other and interact.
You’re busy, and you won’t find all the answers yourself. Consider creating online spaces where members can interact with each other. This might look like a simple forum, chat room, or Facebook Group, for instance, or a more structured system where people can post their needs and offerings. Switchboard and Needslist are companies that produce platforms for such a system. Be sure that you set up appropriate ground-rules and dedicate staff to moderate and make sure it is a constructive and respectful resource.
Develop collaborative experiments with fellow credit unions and other organizations.
Credit unions are expert collaborators. Explore how you and fellow credit unions could work together to create tools and practices for mutual aid in your communities. You could even draw support from outside the credit union world, such as by posting a project on Help with COVID, an online clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities. Send your techies to the Coronavirus Tech Handbook, a fast-growing Google Doc with an immense number of resources. Oh, and Filene would love to help facilitate these collaborations, so let us know if you’re interested.
Prepare for the long haul.
The coronavirus crisis will probably outlive a lot of the volunteerism now being wielded against it. Communities will need institutions like credit unions to be leaders for a long process of adaptation, one that will transform the economy in lasting ways. Don’t just plan to cope until things return to normal. We must all be working toward a new normal, one made of healthier, more resilient communities with stronger mutual ties.
Mutuality is great in a crisis—and COVID-19 is itself a crisis of solidarity—but mutuality strengthens us in more normal times, too. Let this challenging period guide your credit union to rediscover its mission, its unique model, and the ingenuity of its members.
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Filene is here to help credit unions support their people and build their business resiliency during the COVID-19 crisis. Filene will be releasing resources in line with what credit unions need most.
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Filene stands at the ready to get you the support and resources that would help you best serve your members and employees right now. Tell us what would be most helpful.