Aug 22 2013

Tru Circle: A social, peer-to-peer lending solution for the underserved and underbanked


Across the United States and beyond, Weight Watchers has seen weight-loss success for 50 years. Having a home for peer support, education to learn smarter habits, and the encouragement to stick it out no matter how many french fries make you fall off the wagon are the cornerstones of their program. What is the sense of connecting hopes of weight-loss with dreams of adding to your financial portfolio? There is an undeniable and unique link between the sensitive nature of peoples’ wallets and waistbands. Whether or not it’s a sensitive topic, consumers that are underserved or unbanked in the financial world need and want education, support, and understanding... far beyond what a brochure by the teller line can offer.

In this brief, The Cooperative Trust looks ahead based on the past year of development for their solution: Tru Circle - a social, peer to peer lending solution that allows participants to lean on each other, instead of the financial institution. As a follow up to the March 2013 report on Using Design Thinking to Serve the Underserved, this brief dives further into the nuts and bolts of Tru Circle and the templates of success for serving this market within credit unions.

What’s the Big Idea?
On June 16, 2012, fifteen eager, young, and good-looking credit union professionals from the United States and Canada descended upon San Diego, CA to “crash” CUNA’s America’s Credit Union Conference (ACUC). The band of under 30-year-olds devoted their free time away from the conference to innovating a new solution to the age-old problem of: How can credit unions better serve the underserved and underbanked?

The team immersed itself into a process called “design thinking," a recipe for problem solving and implementation. The mission - create a solution that is approachable, understandable, and interesting.  Through a series of research assignments and individual hour-long interviews with seven different underserved individuals, fresh insights were observed about these individuals:

  • They experience personal hardship.
  • They lean on others within their community.
  • They foster a spirit of philanthropy and creativity.
  • They want help, but fear or lack of understanding is a road block.

Tru Circle packages these insights into a product that encourages peer support complimented by educational components. This not only builds trust between this market of consumers and the credit union, but fosters a positive environment for a future long-standing relationship. By offering Tru Circle as an alternate lending option, credit unions are assisting this market to obtain credit and work towards a path of more traditional lending opportunities. The low dollar loans are peer supported, which minimizes risk to the credit union while still maximizing on the participation of members within the community or field of membership.

What are the Implications for Credit Unions?
Credit unions should also learn to look at consumers’ problems with a fresh set of eyes and ears, and to remove the assumptions sometimes created by loan denials or underserved individuals. Consider mastering the 5 Whys approach before even brainstorming a solution to serve members, or non-members. 

Begin thinking beyond the value(s) that your credit union staff can offer and learn to utilize the connections among your individual community members.  By encouraging groups of this market to lean on one another, there is a safe haven the credit union is offering without added risk. There should be a level of pride attained by the credit union’s ability to take a step back as the relationship expert and pass the baton to the peer group members within a Tru Circle. Accountability among friends within a Tru Circle is going to trump any authority a Collections department could have.

By increasing members’ reliance on a peer group facing the same struggles and providing a sound framework, credit unions can have hope that weight loss success can be carried over into the financial lives of consumers. To join us in effort of improving malnourished wallets, visit us at

Report Number 307