NCBA CLUSA is thrilled to announce a new interview series highlighting our members and the innovative ways they demonstrate cooperative impact. Our focus this January is Access—specifically, how co-ops provide and expand access to quality, affordable products and services, lowering costs and serving communities historically seen as “higher risk” or underserved.
Next month, we’ll focus on Business Sustainability, making our way through “The ABCs of Co-op Impact,” a shared framework for assessing cooperative impact developed by the Urban Institute in partnership with NCBA CLUSA and the Cooperative Development Foundation. Designed to better understand co-ops and their link to healthy, equitable and sustainable communities, this work is supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Our first spotlight, guest written by Margaret Lund, features DC Credit Union and is based on an interview with its CEO Carla Decker.
DC Credit Union
Assets: $63 million
DC Credit Union believes that “where you start shouldn’t determine where you end up.” The Washington, DC-based credit union began in 1954 with an employer-based field of membership: employees of the District of Columbia. DC Credit Union has since expanded to include residents of several core DC neighborhoods, and members of a variety of community-based organizations.
One of only two U.S. Department of Treasury certified Community Development Financial Institutions in the District, DC Credit Union is a visionary, responsive financial institution that has built a powerful model for simultaneously pursuing both growth and inclusivity.
Responding to the District’s high degree of “unbanked” residents—a rate that is 20 percent above the national average—DC Credit Union focuses on financial access, providing services designed to bring marginalized communities into the financial mainstream.
NCBA CLUSA: How did DC Credit Union make the decision to expand beyond its employer-based field of membership?
Carla Decker: We were contacted by our regulatory agency, the NCUA, to see if we could take over the charter of a small, struggling, Latino-based credit union serving the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, DC. On the surface, the two institutions did not appear to have much in common: DC Credit Union had an employer-based field of membership, not a geographic one, and our membership was primarily African American, not Hispanic. We had few Spanish-speaking staff, and no specialized services for immigrants. Many of our new credit union members would be undocumented, while DCCU’s existing membership included many in law enforcement. But our credit union board members were able to look beyond what was, to what could be. They saw a future of growth beyond the limitations of a finite field of District employees and, more importantly, they saw an affinity between two groups of minority District residents, along with a common need for a variety of more inclusive financial products and services that was not being met by conventional financial institutions.
NCBA CLUSA: How has DC Credit Union changed since the merger?
Decker: Some of the differences are simple—our branches have Saturday and extended evening hours designed with working people in mind, and our Mount Pleasant branch has a fully bi-lingual staff. Others are more complex. Like many progressive credit unions, DC Credit Union offers accounts that do not require social security numbers to provide non-citizens with a safe and convenient place to keep and build assets. We have found this approach is not only useful for immigrants, but also for the District’s young people, some of whom do not have a responsible adult in their lives to act as custodian for their accounts as minors, as required by most financial institutions. Working with the DC Government, DCCU offers all participants in the District’s youth summer employment program automatic direct deposit into their own non-custodial account, coupled with education in basic budgeting and other useful skills.
NCBA CLUSA: A key factor driving economic disparities in the U.S. is the profound and growing wealth disparity. According to data compiled by the Urban Institute, the median family wealth for a white family in 2016 was over $170,000—a rate ten times more than the $17,409 average for African American families and eight times more than the $20,920 median for Hispanic families. How is DCCU addressing the wealth gap?
Decker: We focus on the products, services and strategies that build family assets. This includes products such as affordable mortgages and small business loans, but also a host of supportive educational tools and resources, including guides and classes on topics like how to rebuild credit, save for a major purchase, and protect yourself from fraud. Just as importantly, we employ a dedicated staff that often know members by name, and can help provide access opportunities like free tax preparations services, or navigate the unfamiliar world of finance.
NCBA CLUSA: How has that focus on wealth building changed the loan products DC Credit Union offers?
Decker: We offer a range of creative unsecured loans, for situations and needs that are common for our members. Part of the democratic and empowering nature of cooperatives is that they meet their members where they are at, and provide the right kind of tools to help people to bring themselves to a different place. For qualified DCCU members seeking citizenship, this might mean an unsecured “citizenship” loan to help front the costs of legal services for immigrants working with approved partner nonprofits. For a faith-based neighborhood civic club, it might mean a small loan to cover seasonal expenses before revenue can be raised. For a prospective homeowner, it might mean unsecured funds for down payment costs or a loan to consolidate existing credit into a more manageable structure. Building upon relationships and the existing civic infrastructure of the community through the city, religious institutions and local nonprofits, DC Credit Union is able to offer these unsecured loans without undue financial risk to the institution.
NCBA CLUSA: How does DC Credit Union balance the varying needs of its membership?
Decker: DC Credit Union has embraced our diverse membership base and helped to create a stable and prosperous foundation for our members to pursue their needs and aspirations, whether shared among many or distinctive to a particular segment of the group. We were created in the 1950s to serve the needs of District government employees who were struggling to make ends meet. Our members’ needs still play a key role in every decision we make.