A One-on-One Growth Strategy

The National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions has enjoyed a membership and revenue spike in recent years. The secret? A lot of face time.

When B. Dan Berger became CEO of the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions in 2013, his primary goal was simple: Get out of the office.

“I went on the road for about four or five months straight, just grinding it out and meeting as many CEOs and senior management of members and nonmembers around the country as I could,” he says. “I asked, what do you want from us? What do you want from your trade association?”

That shoe-leather approach to leadership among members (and potential ones) has paid off for the trade association: Since Berger took the reins, NAFCU’s revenue has grown 31 percent, and more than 465 new members have joined since 2015. But he cautions that while all that travel helps with engagement, it’s not a meaningful effort unless the association actually responds to the concerns it hears about.

In NAFCU’s case, Berger heard about three common needs: advocacy, education and training, and assistance with regulatory compliance. And interestingly, those concerns were raised by members and nonmembers alike. “We have a competitor in our realm,” he says. “So we had to not only maintain our value proposition but better communicate it and then improve on it.”

We had to not only maintain our value proposition but better communicate it and then improve on it.

That’s meant some retooling of NAFCU’s mix of meetings and educational events to make them speak more directly to the needs that members were raising. “We had conferences that weren’t doing well, so we stopped doing them and really focused on things that credit unions asked for,” Berger says. The growth in more focused meetings in turn brought in increased sponsorship revenue, he adds.

Advocacy has always been a strong suit for the association, but Berger notes that effective advocacy isn’t just a matter of holding effective meetings with legislators. It also means effectively communicating meaningful trends to members. (That’s especially true since NAFCU’s advocacy positions can differ from those of its competing association.) To that end, NAFCU revamped its daily advocacy newsletter to highlight just-the-facts content.

“You have to have a robust, strong lobbying organization, but if you don’t communicate that—if you don’t inform the members of that—then it’s falling on deaf ears,” he says. “You’re not showing your value proposition to your membership. So we communicate our advocacy wins and losses on a very regular basis. In the past, [our daily email] may have had articles about how so-and-so gave $5,000 to Habitat for Humanity, which is nice. But a CEO doesn’t care about a contribution in Topeka, Kansas.”

Those changes have also necessitated a cultural readjustment within NAFCU’s staff. Employee evaluations were altered; a bonus system was established for hitting targets; professional development budgets got a boost. “We had goals that the board of directors would set for nondues income and membership growth, as well as organizational goals,” Berger says.

But it’s those individual meetings that have done as much as anything to sustain NAFCU’s growth, says Berger, who logged 100,000 miles in air travel last year: “It’s our secret sauce. If you give me 15 minutes with a [credit union] CEO, I can explain how we can help them.”

For a leader in his position, there’s no such thing as talking too much about the changes he’s making, Berger says. (That echoes what I wrote last week about leading through cultural change.)

“That was a weakness of mine in terms of assuming we’ve got this great relationship with our employees and members,” he says. “But as an organization, you have to communicate over and over again. And that’s not just via email. That’s getting up out of your chair and walking around and talking to folks, which I do on a daily basis. You have to keep communicating.”

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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