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CUNA's Desjardins Award Honors Credit Union Financial Education Efforts

CUNA's Desjardins Award Honors Credit Union Financial Education Efforts By Cyndi Cohen
Published June 14, 2012
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“A credit union is not an ordinary financial concern, seeking to enrich its members at the expense of the general public. Neither is it a loan company, seeking to make a profit at the expense of the unfortunates…The credit union is nothing of the kind; it is the expression in the field of economics of a high social ideal.” ~ Alphonse Desjardins

Oftentimes those unfamiliar with credit unions ask, “How is a credit union different from a bank?” Well, there are the more operational reasons -- credit unions are member-owned and operated rather than owned by stockholders, and credit unions offer better rates and lower fees. Then there are the philosophical reasons -- credit unions provide superior member service, focus on their member’s needs, and offer valuable financial education to help members become financially literate, productive members of society.

For many bank customers, the idea of a financial institution imparting education on to consumers may seem unconventional, but that type of selfless, people-friendly way of thinking is just what Alphonse Desjardins, credit union pioneer, was referring to in his sentiments above. Therefore, it seems only fitting that modern day credit union education efforts are honored in Desjardins’ name.

Desjardins’ Spirit Lives On

Desjardins, the founder of the North American credit union movement, established the first “caisse populaire” (people’s bank) in Quebec in 1900, and helped establish the first American credit union in New Hampshire in 1909. He was an ardent believer in the value of teaching children to save, and promoted the idea of in-school savings programs or caisses scolaires. Thus, the CUNA Desjardins Financial Education Award honors credit unions for their commitment to youth and adult financial literacy. CUNA (Credit Union National Association) also formally recognizes a state lawmaker each year for his or her leadership on behalf of youth financial education.

According to Vikki Kinsler, Product Manager for CUNA, the Desjardins Youth Financial Education Award program began in 2001 as a way to recognize credit union leagues for their efforts in promoting youth financial education with credit unions in their states. “In 2001, we awarded two leagues for their efforts -- in 2002, we began recognizing and awarding leagues, credit unions, and chapters/groups, for their leadership within the credit union movement on behalf of youth financial literacy.”

Fast forward to 2011, CUNA created the Desjardins Adult Financial Education Award program to recognize model credit union efforts to teach personal finance concepts and skills to members and non-members age 18 and older. “The adult award complemented the well-established Desjardins Youth Financial Education Award, and brought all personal finance education activities under the Desjardins umbrella, including the award for leagues,” explains Kinsler. By adding the Desjardins award for adult education CUNA aims to draw attention to the need for lifelong financial literacy. Last year, they received 85 entries for the two programs, awarded 5 winners and 9 honorable mention winners in the youth category, and 5 winners and 5 honorable mention winners in the adult category.

The Value of Financial Education

CUNA and credit unions nationwide understand the importance of spreading financial education, dedicating time and resources to such efforts, and it shows.

According to Kinsler, credit unions, chapters and leagues are working very hard to show the credit union movement’s increasing commitment to teaching members and non-members about personal finance and providing that leadership, and CUNA feels it’s important to recognize those efforts. “It’s exciting to note the steady growth in credit union participation in the Desjardins recognition program -- the credit union movement continues to reinforce its commitment to improving members’ financial well-being from childhood on.”

Erin Timmons, Membership Development Officer at Palmetto Citizens Federal Credit Union (Columbia, SC), a past Desjardins winner and current entrant, says that working to encourage wise financial practices in youth and adults is undoubtedly going to benefit the individual and the community as a whole. “As credit union professionals we have all seen firsthand the ramifications of poor financial management.”

A Desjardin Winner in the Making

So we know there is a dire need for financial education and that the credit union world has taken action in a big way, but how can the success of such efforts be measured? How do credit unions know they’re truly making a difference?

According to CUNA, each league that participates in the Desjardins awards program holds its own state-level judging and first place winners are then selected to advance to CUNA for national level competition. Only one first place chapter winner and one first place credit union winner per asset category can advance to the national competition from any given state. Judges evaluate credit union entries based on three mandatory criteria in four asset categories.

Winning entries show concrete, relevant evidence of program effectiveness in their efforts in teaching members and non-members about personal finance and providing financial literacy leadership. They may have put a twist on something that’s been done for a long time, or perhaps created some new and innovative partnerships. It’s always important for credit unions to show how they adapted the materials to the needs of their particular audience(s), and how they engaged the audience.

Palmetto Citizens, for example, has sent in applications for many years and has been entered to win on the state level many times. The credit union has won national recognition three times for their youth financial education efforts and once for their adult efforts. “Hearing all the amazing things credit unions throughout the country are doing makes you so proud to be a part of the credit union movement,” says Timmons.

For their Adult Desjardins Award, Palmetto focused on their efforts offering free financial education workshops to their members, public and community organizations. For the youth entry, they highlighted all their efforts to educate young people, from speaking in classes, holding evening workshops, assisting with NEFE, HSFPP to their Credit Union Youth Week Activities. The credit union also formed a Financial Education Team -- this group of specially chosen and trained speakers is on call for the many speaker requests they receive for both young people and adults.

“We are preparing for our entries throughout the year, from keeping track of credit union speakers, to taking pictures at events and documenting the number of attendees at workshops; being organized throughout the year makes compiling an entry much easier,” explains Timmons. While putting together an application is a lot of work Timmons says it is fun to pull together all the credit union’s efforts throughout the year and summarize them in one document. “In addition to the prospect of recognition it is important for the credit union to document our efforts and see what we have accomplished during the year.”

When Members Benefit, Everyone Wins

Although not every credit union that enters will officially “win,” it seems that all involved in this financial literacy movement, the credit union educators along with the members who receive their valuable teachings, are winners in the end.

While the Desjardins award winners are formally recognized annually at an awards reception held during the Governmental Affairs Conference in Washington, DC, these credit unions are excited and proud about the programs they offer and the impact they are having on members, the community, and other credit unions. “In addition to recognizing credit unions that are doing a good job, the Desjardins Award is also a way to publicize best practices so that other credit unions can take these ideas and have the same success,” contends Timmons.

Many credit unions see helping the communities they serve, through initiatives like financial literacy, as part of their mission. “It can be easy to not consider community efforts something you need to track, but it is important to track and document what your credit union is doing in the community -- spread throughout the year it may not seem like much, but cumulatively it is amazing the impact and number of people we assist.”

Interested in becoming part of Desjardins’ higher social ideal? Find a credit union and join today!

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