Jun 18 '21

Maximizers of Impact

Robin Brulé
Robin Brulé
Senior Director, Philanthropic Partnerships
Filene Research Institute

We have seen more than our fair share of economic and social challenges over the past year, and with each one our eyes have been opened to the complicated intersecting issues facing the communities credit unions are living in.

Robin Brulé
Robin Brulé
Senior Director, Philanthropic Partnerships
Filene Research Institute

If we look back to why credit unions were formed, we remember that they were born to meet financial challenges during the Great Depression. We have seen more than our fair share of economic and social challenges since then, and with each one our eyes have been opened to the complicated intersecting issues facing the communities credit unions are living in. At the end of the day, credit unions cannot be successful if their communities are not successful.

In January, Filene welcomed Robin Brulé to the Filene team as our Senior Director of Philanthropic Partnerships to help expand our cross-sector collaborations when solving complex economic issues and promoting financial well-being. With more than 25 years of community leadership experience, Robin shares a few insights for credit unions to maximize their own impact at home.

Where do you see opportunities for the credit union industry to think beyond their members as one-issue individuals and address financial well-being as a whole?

Our work is a powerful force multiplier to promote economic opportunity and well-being. When we open that work to collaborate with community partners, we will really see systemic improvements in individual, community, economic, and social outcomes. This kind of collaboration opens the door for credit unions to test innovative solutions, address complex challenges facing their communities, and start to shift policies, practices, and institutions in lasting and impactful ways. 

One such example is Filene’s Reaching Minority Households Incubator where 40 credit unions provided 58,482 loans through alternative lending options, including the use of relationship factors other than a credit score.

Learn more about the Reaching Minority Households Incubator at filene.org/452.

How can credit unions innovate within their philanthropic efforts to address the growing needs of their communities?

When we look at these challenges and complex problems, we need to take both a systems-based approach, and ground “context experts” in the center. Context Experts are individuals who know the issue intimately and experience it day to day and often, context experts are BIPOC folks who have historically been excluded from the design of programs and systems. Which is why those programs and systems don’t work. Great content knowledge without an understanding of how it can be applied in an unknown context is doomed to fail; great context without infrastructural content knowledge is highly unlikely to drive community change.

This is going to allow credit unions to be a maximizer of impact while allowing other sectors to show up and help provide solutions to the challenges faced by credit union members.

Credit unions have an opportunity to bring the very best of themselves as a credit union body and think about how to combine what they do with what others are doing with this kind of work. This is going to allow credit unions to be a maximizer of impact while allowing other sectors to show up and help provide solutions to the challenges faced by credit union members. The cooperative movement in and of itself shows why this collaborative mindset is so important.

I would also encourage credit unions to approach this through a data lens. The more you understand your community and get grounded in data, the greater the impact your philanthropic efforts will make. You may be surprised by what you are hearing and learning about the real needs your communities are facing. Then you can start asking the big questions to drive your philanthropic efforts forward. Questions like: 

  • How is this community doing? 
  • What are factors both positive and negative, internal and external that are influencing this community (such as: not enough living wage paying jobs, under-education, lack of workforce development skill programs)? 
  • Who are partners who have a role in this? 
  • Who is involved in changing /shifting these dynamics? 
  • What would work to change these issues? 
  • What can our credit union do to change these issues?

What are the key strategies credit unions can use to facilitate successful collaborations in cross-sector partnerships?

  • Think about where you can leverage partnerships and go all-in. Analyze and deploy your people, capital, products and services, community relationships, and the financial system as a whole to connect with these partners. When you find the greatest gaps in your community, align your employee volunteer programs and your capital to those gaps. If you deploy all your resources in one direction and towards those partnerships, you will see a greater impact.
  • Challenge your assumptions. When you start drilling down and understanding a problem, I think you will be surprised to find the problem is very different and far more complex than what we imagined. Embrace how it can change your viewpoint, assumptions and even your products and services. As you increase your understanding, you will be able to see where and how your credit union can join with partners already deep into this work.

    Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) Lending is a great example of deploying a product, building community relationships and creating system-wide change to make a product that is more accessible and affordable. ITIN Lending helped change a system.

    Learn more at filene.org/stories.
  • Use your marketing muscle. When you’re using the best of your resources to make an impact, you not only have an opportunity to make said impact, but you have an opportunity to raise awareness and showcase the partners you are doing this work with. I think you will find that more often than not, those partners will not be able to budget for or have the reach that you will have. Share your collective impact story.