Credit Unions, Here’s That Awareness Campaign You’ve Been Waiting For

Many in the credit union industry have bemoaned the absence of a full-scale awareness campaign, but credit unions have been paralyzed by questions like “What would we say?” and “How would it be funded?” Well, here’s a simple solution to the problem.

What if one day, every credit union in the world sent out representatives to perform hundreds of thousands of good deeds, nice gestures and other random acts of kindness, things such as:

  • paying for the person behind you in a drive through
  • picking up the check for families at local restaurants
  • giving away free lunches in the park
  • handing out free cones from an ice cream truck
  • paying for people’s movie tickets at the theater
  • hosting a BBQ at your nearby college/university
  • washing people’s cars for free
  • paying for everyone’s coffee at a café
  • giving away free coffee and treats on a busy downtown street
  • giving away umbrellas on rainy days
  • paying for fill ups at gas stations
  • partnering with a pizza parlor to give away free delivery orders
  • surprising local businesses with a free lunch or breakfast
  • cooking up a hot meal and bringing it to the local fire department
  • think big — give some deserving family a house, or a new car

Each good deed would be accompanied by a small leaflet explaining that “credit unions do good things for good people.” People would be directed to a website where they could learn more about credit unions and their philosophy. The public would be encouraged to do good deeds for others, starting with joining a credit union.

At the core of this campaign is a concept known as “paying it forward,” a civics model popularized by the 2000 film starring Kevin Spacey. Typically, when someone does something nice for you, you turn around and do something nice for them. But the “pay it forward” concept asks that the recipient of a good deed “repay the favor” to a third party instead of “paying the debt” back to the person originally credited with the act.

Benjamin Franklin was an early proponent of the “pay it forward” model. In a letter to a friend who had borrowed money from him, Franklin wrote, “When you meet with another honest man in similar distress, you must pay me by lending this sum to him. I hope it may thus go through many hands, before it meets with a knave that will stop its progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.”

Why? What’s the Strategy?

Awareness and understanding of credit unions is poor. Credit unions desperately need new, younger members, and yet a huge chunk of the population has no idea what “credit unions even are.

This lack of awareness cost credit unions a huge opportunity, perhaps the biggest in their 100-year history. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, you’d think credit unions would have been flooded with new business, but the industry barely saw a small uptick in net new members.

The Financial Brand has consistently pointed out the advantages that a cooperative, industry-wide awareness campaign would offer credit unions, as well as the folly of failing to get such a campaign off the ground.

A worldwide “pay it forward” initiative attacks these problems head-on. It gives credit unions the opportunity to tell their story while living out their principles. Credit unions are, after all about “people helping people.” And just like credit unions, the concept really only works at the hyper-local level.

The sheer volume and value of the PR alone makes this kind of campaign worthwhile. The press eats this sort of stuff up. In the wake of banking’s massive meltdown, the media are hungry for any kind of story that either reinforces — or shatters — the nasty big bank image. A story about financial institutions doing nice things for people is about as shocking as the backwards “Man Bites Dog” headline editors love. One credit union who helped pioneer the “pay it forward” model gave away $2,820 and yielded $1.3 million in tracked PR value. That’s a 46,099% return on investment. According to The Financial Brand’s calculations, an industry-wide campaign funded at a similar level could yield an estimated $4.3 billion in earned PR.

Then of course there is the word-of-mouth stories that would be told by the hundreds of thousands of people who received random acts of kindness. They would run around telling friends and family about their experience. Some may even perform a good deed or two on their own, compounding the campaign’s effect. Heck, it might even go viral.

How Much?

Among the first questions to cross the minds of most credit union executives includes the inevitable: “What does it cost?” and “Who pays for it?” The answer is quite simple.

If every credit union were to allocate a budget equivalent to 0.001% of its assets, America’s credit unions could fund over $9.5 million in good deeds. At an average cost of $20 per good deed, that’s nearly half a million random acts of kindness that could be performed. Add another 0.001% to create a budget that supports the campaign.

Here’s how this would work out. A credit union with $1 billion in assets would set aside 1% of its overall marketing budget for good deeds — approximately $10,000 for 500 acts of kindness — then add another $10,000 for marketing support. This is no more than the cost of a typically modest sales promotion. A $100 million credit union would budget $1,000 for 50 good deeds and a $1,000 marketing budget.Even $10 million credit unions can participate; $100 for five carefully-considered gestures could go a long way.

All in all, it’s a fair and equitable self-funding structure that doesn’t require any sort of “taxation” or payments made to a central organizing entity.


The best time to launch a campaign of this magnitude would be International Credit Union Day, celebrated the third Thursday of every October. Credit unions already invest energy into this rather un-noteworthy event, so why not turn it into a major marketing push? Heck, one credit union is on board already.

Credit Unions Already Love This Idea

It shouldn’t take a lot of arm twisting to get the industry behind this idea. There are already dozens of credit unions who recognize the inherent synergies between their business models and the “pay it forward” concept.

In 2008, Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union asked people, “If we gave you $10? What would you do for someone else?” For their answers, the credit union gave away $10 to people — free, no strings attached — just with the assignment to “pay it forward.”

Summit Credit Union copied Seattle Metro’s ‘Pay It Forward’ concept, but then took it to a whole new level. Summit has an ongoing ‘Pay It Forward’ microsite, and a permanent ‘Do More’ team who spreads random acts of kindness around their community. In 2009, AltaOne FCU also used a similar ‘Good Deeds’ street team.

Servus Credit Union’s ‘Feel Good Ripple’ invited people to share their “feel good deeds.” Similarly, Land of Lincoln Credit Union has ‘Project Do Good,’ a campaign inviting the community to share stories about how they helped “pay it forward.” Same with Mountain America Credit Union, and many others.

Jeffry PilcherDon't miss The Financial Brand Forum 2019, the biggest and fastest-growing annual conference for senior-level executives in the banking industry. Join 2,000+ of the best and brightest in banking April 15-17, 2019 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Banks and credit unions that register now $1,105.00 and pay nothing until next year!

This article was originally published on September 27, 2011. All content © 2018 by The Financial Brand and may not be reproduced by any means without permission.


  1. Ken Gardner says:

    Brilliant idea, well thought out, I’m in!

  2. Well done Jeffry. An idea every CU could get behind on their own level. Asset size and budget are not a factor. Keeping it local yet accomplishing awareness on a national level.

  3. With all of the devastation left from Irene, perhaps the CU’s in some of these areas, combined with drywall contractors, painters,carpenters, masons, etc. could come together to pay it forward in getting homes and shops habitable again. Every CU has business partners. They should ask each one of them to pay it forward. The combined giving would be a great community story for all.

  4. @Kenny – Great suggestion.

    @Ken – You can give it a little test this upcoming Int’l CU Day, or wait until next year. To do the right amount of planning and coordination, I was thinking this would be more appropriate for 2012, but there’s no reason a bunch of credit unions couldn’t give it a whirl this year to see how it goes.

    @Randy – Thanks. It’s a very scalable idea — one that doesn’t require a large, complex, centralized infrastructure to pull off. It even works on a global level. All it really needs is for credit unions to agree on the idea. That’s all it takes. It could grow from there, into something more robust and cohesive. I think CUNA would make the ideal point of contact for national PR, which is the most important component of the initiative.

  5. Robins Federal Credit Union began a program like this in 2010, and we have continued it this year. It has been wildly successful. We go throughout the communities we serve buying groceries, gas, prescriptions and meals. We even purchased new combat boots for an airman in need at our local Air Force base, and we deliver free lunches to local emergency services departments. Check out what we are doing this year at

  6. Excellent Megan. Performing random acts of kindness makes for a great promotion. Now all credit unions need to do is agree to do this type of promotion all during the same week 🙂

  7. For the record, Mr. Pilcher’s insights are interesting, but Credit Union Journal Publisher Frank J. Diekmann has been saying this for years, including specifically making this proposal in his column on more than one occasion, and mentioning it numerous times in his speaking engagements around the country.

  8. As noted in the comments previously, there is no claim made as to the originality of the concept. It’s such an obviously good idea, I’d be surprised if dozens of people hadn’t thought of it before. I’m sorry if you feel I was trying to steal Frank’s thunder — that wasn’t the intention at all. In all fairness, I haven’t read anything at the CU Journal’s firewalled site in over four years, and have never seen Frank speak ever.

  9. Joe Sullivan says:

    This idea is spot on. In this highly commoditized industry, which is also suffering from a lack of consumer trust and confidence, this gets at the emotional center of where consumers live. I would like to see all aspects of financial services (credit unions, banks, brokerage firms, etc.) participate in this kind of outreach because it creates multiple benefits, among them, helping to restore a damaged industry brand, and removing price and fees from the conversation.

  10. And it makes the world a better place 🙂

  11. Excellent article. I agree with the assessment that credit unions may have missed out on a great opportunity to pick up more market share. But it’s not too late. CU’s can still get more business. But first, the average consumer needs to know who credit unions are and what they are all about!

  12. I have to disagree with calling this a campaign. While I definitely think this is a good idea I don’t think it’s nearly enough to drive the kind of awareness Credit Unions are looking for.

    Giving back to the community, “paying it forward”, and investing dollars into “acts of kindess” fund is a great idea, but doesn’t have an valuable or measurable component that make it worth it for individual credit unions to invest in. At the end of the day, the fact is that it doesn’t turn into results because it doesn’t educate people about what a credit union actually is.

    While ideas like this are nice, they are by no means enough. What is it that people care about when it really comes to the management of their finances? What is going to drive those new young members to learn more about Credit Unions? How are Credit Unions really different? Spending $10 on asking a person to “pay it forward” is definitely not enough of a solution. Who takes credit for the giving? What about the smaller credit unions wouldn’t have nearly the same amount to give as a credit union with $1 billion in assets? As the credit union donating the larger amount, would you not want some recognition for this contribution?

    At the end of the day, credit unions are businesses. And being “nice” in the business world doesn’t turn into profits. People need hard facts about why their money is worth investing with you and “paying it forward” just isn’t enough.

  13. Tim McAlpine says:

    I think this idea has real merit, but I think the time is now not a year from now. Here’s my thoughts… “Pay it Forward and Backward”

  14. Muhammad Ali Jinnah says:

    This is a good idea. But in a country like Bangladesh, where poverty is rampant and endless, we need policies to motivate people to SAVE little-bit every day. That’s how they can, over the period of some time, have some asset of their own. But at the moment they are at the bondage of MICRO-CREDIT loan sharks.

Speak Your Mind


Show Comments