Former CUNA Chair Harriet May: Grassroots Begins at Home

Board members have a fiduciary responsibility, along with high expectations to deliver on advocacy. Our presenters at the Volunteers’ Conference will help board members put structure around those roles.

The Volunteers’ Conference in June will introduce strategic models to help improve board effectiveness. Our speakers will focus on establishing role clarity using the Strategic Governance Model, as well as defining your role in helping to rally your members in advocacy efforts.

Credit unions want to lessen the regulatory burden, protect their tax status and reap the benefits of favorable legislation, but are they leveraging all their resources to ensure these wins? With the credit union tax exemption under the microscope in Oregon, nearly twenty other states and at the federal level, engagement is critical.

A recent poll by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) showed 52% of board members strongly support asking their credit union’s members to help fight anti-credit union issues. That’s a higher percentage than a similar poll found a year ago, but still doesn’t reflect fully engaged boards.

Board members attending the Northwest Credit Union Association (NWCUA) Volunteers’ Conference June 7-9 are going to hear Harriet May tell it like it is—check that—should be.

“Get off the throne and pedestal and get involved,” said the direct-speaking May in a recent interview with Anthem.

May feels board members have the best chance of connecting with the consumers who belong to credit unions, and convincing them to go to bat for credit unions. “We need them,” she said. “They have a very compelling story to share with and about their members. Their boards really know the value of the credit union.”

In a digital age where technology can track so much information about voters and consumers, it might be assumed advocacy is down to a science, but May laments that grassroots advocacy was stronger in the 50’s and 60’s when credit unions were smaller.

Not that May wants to go back to the old ways. She’s a growth advocate, in fact. During her 15-year reign as president and CEO of Government Employees Credit Union (GECU) in El Paso, Texas, the credit union more than doubled its size to become the city’s largest independently owned financial institution with assets of over $1.8 billion and 300,000 members.

With growth and sophistication came a complacency and assumption that trade associations and CEOs would take care of the lobbying.

But as far as lawmakers are concerned, May said, the more Main St. the voice the more likely Congress listens.

“They look at the CEO or the lobbyist and say, “you’re paid to do this. Your salary depends on what you do here.”

The real member often has a better story to tell. She recalls a member of her credit union who’d owned a restaurant for decades. The credit union financed small things that kept it in business—new tables and chairs, a grease trap—things the banks would not finance.

“When you have a member tell a Congressman he could not get financing anywhere else, that becomes a compelling story,” May said.

At the Volunteers’ Conference, May will encourage board members to become better versed on the history and philosophy of credit unions, why the not-for-profit structure makes credit unions different, and “why we are not banks.”

“We are credit unions because we are doing the right things for good people for good reasons,” May said. “If we can maintain our image of that, I maintain credit unions will continue to exist.”

In addition to the grassroots message, Volunteers will receive regulatory and financial training. The setting for this year’s conference is the Skamania Lodge resort in Stevenson, WA. Online registration is now open.


Questions? Contact Lynn Heider: 503.350.2225,

Posted in Advocacy News, CUNA, Events.