Jill Nowacki Talks about Maps Accomplishments, Connecticut Goals and What It Means to Leave Friends and Family Behind

Jill Nowacki is on the move.

That’s probably not a surprise to anyone who works with Maps Credit Union’s vice president of development in Salem, where her fingerprints are all over marketing, strategic communications, human resources, community outreach and more.

As executive director of the Maps Community Foundation, Jill Nowacki (middle) was instrumental in launching the award-winning Maps Community Challenge, which won a first-place Dora Maxwell Social Responsibility Award from the Credit Union National Association this year. The challenge’s first winner, Cyndi Astley, accepted her $1,000 award with her son, whose response to seeing homeless teens inspired Astley to enter the competition.

Probably not a surprise to the Maps Community Foundation, where she is the executive director, or to the Northwest Credit Union Foundation, where she sits on the board. And probably not much of a shock to her colleagues throughout the Northwest, who have watched her work tirelessly on behalf of credit unions and their members—a dedication that earned her the NWCUA’s Young Credit Union Professional of the Year award in October.

Nowacki, it seems, is always on the move.

But this time, it’s different. This time, it’s taking her away.

On Dec. 9, Nowacki will become the president and CEO of the Credit Union League of Connecticut, an association of 90 credit unions with more than 850,000 members and almost $9.3 billion in assets. It’s an incredible opportunity that feels like “a perfect fit,” Nowacki says. “I love that I get to be part of an organization with a sole purpose that is essentially helping others be successful.”

In an exclusive interview with Anthem, Nowacki talks about her new role in Connecticut, as well as her accomplishments at Maps. She also reflects on what it’s like for a native Oregonian to leave friends and family behind and head east.

Q. You’ve lived and worked away from Oregon before, as a college student and as a professional. So in a way, going to work at Maps five years ago must have felt like a homecoming of sorts. How hard will it be to leave Oregon again?

Without a doubt, it will be difficult to leave Maps and the Northwest, and the decision to relocate was not made lightly. There is so much to miss here!

I grew up in Oregon, and when I moved away for college in 2001, I always assumed I would eventually return home. The pull proved very strong five years ago, when (Maps President/CEO Mark Zook) gave me the opportunity to work for Maps.

I’ve been able to spend those five years closer to my dad, brothers and their families. In the time I’ve lived here, my son was born and each of my brothers had two children. It’s hard to think about not being nearby to watch them grow up together, but technology has advanced incredibly and I know we will be able to stay connected between in-person visits.

Q. You’ve accomplished so much during your time at Maps. What’s your proudest accomplishment, and what do you feel is being left undone?

Jill Nowacki announces the winner of a prize at Swim-a-Rama, a fundraiser to help support the Salem-Keizer Swim Boosters. As part of Maps’ first $50,000 donation to the Salem-Keizer School District, the credit union donated $10,000 to help keep the swim team from being disbanded.

It’s hard to single out something I would call my greatest accomplishment, but I’m very proud of how my teams have evolved. I started with Maps maybe two weeks before the corporate assessment was announced. As with many credit unions, that was a defining moment for Maps. What we thought was possible through our strategic planning and our annual budget completely morphed, and it set off a new normal. It would have been very easy for any organization to throw up its hands and feel defeated, but that’s not how we approached it. We came together as a group, prioritized our initiatives, and have moved forward year after year. I am proud to be part of a team that saw that challenge, faced it, and has thrived—all while pursuing new ways to better serve members and our community.

On a more personal note, I feel my individual contributions to Maps have focused a lot on employee development, and I am pleased to see some of the success we have had with that. I guess it’s a little bit of that “teach someone to fish” philosophy, but I feel really good knowing that I am leaving Maps with employees who are more aware of the educational opportunities available to them, and I predict that Maps will continue to have employees engaged in programs like Emerging Leaders, DE, Cooperative Trust and Next Top Credit Union Exec.

I regret that I won’t be able to see some projects through, including a branch network redesign and pursuit of CDFI grants. But honestly, feeling like the work is left “undone” is probably more reflective of my ego than anything else. Maps has been around for almost 80 years, and I’ve been part of only five years of that. There is nothing this organization needs me, specifically, to finish. Everything will continue. Progress will still be made. Maps will still successfully serve its members and its community well into the future.

Q. Now it’s on to Connecticut. What attracted you to the job?

A friend and former boss at CUNA approached me about the position. When we first spoke, I told her I really couldn’t see myself leaving Maps, but in the months that followed I had the chance to get to know some of the people on Connecticut’s search committee and to learn more about the opportunity to make an impact in Connecticut and with their credit unions.

I have always loved the role of the league, completely believing the only purpose of a league is to either create opportunities or remove obstacles in order to ensure the success of credit unions. I am extremely excited about having a position where my role is to boost credit unions’ chances for successful service to their members and communities. Every conversation I have had with members of the board and the team that works at the league leads me to believe we are well-positioned to have this impact.

Q. As president and CEO, what’s first on the agenda? What are your priorities and goals?

My first priority is to understand what Connecticut’s credit unions need, and then to work to deliver that.

My experience working in a state league was in Montana (Nowacki began her credit union career in communications and marketing at the Montana Credit Union Network), where affiliation ran between 98-100 percent at any given time. While those numbers are phenomenal, what I think is most impressive is that they represent a league that clearly knows its members and is developing, delivering and proving value. I aspire to deliver that type of value to Connecticut’s credit unions—to be part of building something so relevant that there is no question whether credit unions affiliate; it just becomes the norm.

I know league staff is already focused on adding that level of value. In fact, last week I received great news about two new affiliates. So initially, my job will be to understand existing efforts and do everything I can to support the team in fulfilling the promises they have already made to Connecticut’s credit unions.

Q. Reflect for a moment on where the credit union movement is today and where it’s headed. How do you see yourself fitting into that vision?

I believe wholeheartedly that credit unions have a bright future, precisely because of the virtues on which they were founded. I am from a generation that believes in social responsibility, that cares about causes, and that wants to choose local first. Credit unions can—and typically do—own this as they work to serve their communities and attract new members.

Undoubtedly, there are ways to embrace this history and philosophy in modern ways. For example, credit unions are the original peer-to-peer lender. Today, we see new technology popping up everywhere that allows crowdfunding or micro-business lending, but I think there is still something missing from these efforts that keeps them from being truly mainstream. I think credit unions have an opportunity to build part of this market and use our cooperative nature to turn this into something that becomes part of the global credit union brand.

The strength I think I bring to the table with something like this is not that I could develop the technology that would make it possible, but that perhaps I could be a catalyst who inspires others to see what might be possible, helps them pursue their own ideas and connects them with other people and resources that might bring those ideas to fruition. That’s what I aspire to contribute to the future of the credit union industry.

 

Questions? Contact Gary Stein: 503.350.2216, gstein@nwcua.org.

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