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.

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