Credit unions strive to make difference in their local communities

From supporting food drives to helping military families, Alabama's credit unions make a significant impact on their communities

Ask Patrick La Pine, CEO for the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and Affiliates, and he’ll tell you there’s more to credit unions than checking and savings accounts, loans and other financial products.

“The motto for the credit union industry is, ‘People helping people,’ and it’s embedded in the culture of credit unions,” says La Pine. “They really want to make sure that they’re actively engaged in the communities in which they serve.

“And one thing that’s unique about credit unions is that all our credit unions in Alabama, for example, are based in Alabama. They’re not based in New York, Charlotte or Chicago or anywhere else. Their vested interest is in the well-being of their members and the communities in which they serve,” he says.

Credit union members typically belong to a specific group such as government employees, teachers, military personnel, factory workers in a certain industry.

Patrick La Pine, CEO of the League of Southeastern Credit Unions and Affiliates.

“So, because of that, those credit unions and their members are embedded in those communities. If your credit union is a credit union for a school district or UAB [University of Alabama at Birmingham], for example, you’re going to be very active in those causes that those sponsor organizations are also involved in,” La Pine says.

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For example, America’s First Federal Credit Union (AmFirst), headquartered in Birmingham, hosts a Feeding Families Across Alabama Food Drive each year, collecting donated food and money at its 21 branches to support Community Food Bank of Central Alabama.

And last year, AmFirst, in partnership with WBRC Fox 6, awarded $5,000 scholarships to five high school seniors for its 14th annual Rising Star scholarship program.

Meanwhile, Avadian Credit Union, a financial institution based in Hoover with 18 branches across Alabama, 95,000 members and $1.3 billion in assets, hosts blood drives across the state for LifeSouth Community Blood Centers.

“We’ve held a number of blood drives with LifeSouth across our footprint. We’ve done them in Huntsville, across our branch footprint here in Birmingham, and down in the Dothan region to help those who are in need and to use our facilities to help make that a possibility,” says Ashley Wilbanks, Avadian’s vice president of marketing.

“It’s not just relying on our staff to come and to be donors, but the community at large,” says Wilbanks. “We use social media to activate, build awareness and drive people to the branches and then our branch staff are there to meet and greet.

Ashley Wilbanks, vice president of marketing for Avadian Credit Union.

“A lot of times we have goodies. Sometimes it’s breakfast. There have been times in the past where we’ve had Chick-fil-A sandwiches available that we gave out to anybody who stopped by and donated,” Wilbanks says.

Credit unions like Avadian get lots of requests from charitable and civic organizations for help, La Pine says. But credit union boards of directors and managers generally make policies around the types of charities and causes their credit union puts its dollars toward.

One example is All In Credit Union based in Dothan. The credit union contributes to the Army Emergency Relief Fund at Fort Novosel.

The credit union first opened in 1966 as Army Aviation Center Federal Credit Union, providing low-cost financial services to soldiers and their families stationed at the former Fort Rucker.

The Army Emergency Relief Fund provides no-interest loans as well as grants and even scholarships to active and retired soldiers and their family members in need. As of last April, All In reported having donated more than $500,000 to the Fund since it opened in 1990.

“We also support them each year with emergency food needs that they have as well as holiday food needs so that there’s no soldier who’s serving our country at Fort Novosel that has to worry about providing food for their family if they come upon hard times,” says Kathy Scarbrough, All In’s vice president of marketing.

“Now, the other thing we’ve seen a lot of in the last couple of years, is that credit unions have more and more started creating their own charitable foundations,” La Pine says.

To support their foundations, credit unions take a portion of their earnings every year and put that money into the foundation and allow it to make donations.

Alabama One Credit Union, through its Aspire Foundation for example, has offered free first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) classes to West Alabama communities in partnership with the American Red Cross.

Another institution, APCO Employees Credit Union, held its 19th annual Share the Care Foundation Golf Tournament last October at the Greystone Golf & Country Club’s Legacy Course in Birmingham to raise money for its Share the Care Foundation, which in turn contributes to local nonprofits and charitable organizations.

Avadian launched its own charitable foundation back in 2022.

“We have four pillars that we look at to bestow grants and those are: affordable housing, financial education, small business development and education,” Wilbanks says. “This is something that we’re really working on continuing to build, and we support and have supported institutions across the state of Alabama.”

Those institutions have included the United Negro College Fund, Habitat for Humanity of the River Valley, the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club, The Literacy Council of Central Alabama, the Salvation Army and Woodlawn United.

The Foundation has also supported the Alabama Small Business Development Initiative, a non-profit affiliate of the Birmingham Business Resource Center, which provides resources to underserved businesses, she says.

But besides supporting charities, schools and community development projects, credit unions are also known for promoting financial literacy.

“If there’s one cause within our industry that I think you would find 100% consensus around, it’s financial wellness,” La Pine says. “Financial wellness includes financial literacy and financial education, and helping members accumulate wealth, live a good life and have the resources they need in retirement.”

In fact, La Pine says his organization successfully lobbied for the passage of a new law in Alabama mandating that all students take a personal finance class before graduating from high school.

Kathy Scarbrough, vice president of marketing at All In Credit Union.

All In Credit Union promotes financial literacy through its Youth Council that presents once-a-month meetings for high school juniors and seniors who apply. Youth Council participants learn about assorted topics such as credit cards, debt, loans, interest and bank fees.

“We had a car dealership that brought a car, took them outside and talked to them about what are some of the bells and whistles that you need and what are some that you want and what’s the difference between them. So, when you go to buy your first car, this is what financing looks like. You might want to start with a lower priced car that doesn’t have the bells and whistles,” Lisa Hales, senior vice president of member experience at All In Credit Union, says.

In addition, All In operates the finances program for adults that takes them through a six-month, intensive coaching session where they learn topics such as budgeting, managing their credit score, retirement planning and setting their children up for financial success.

Meanwhile Avadian is teaching the public how to avoid losing their hard-earned money to scammers and con artists. Each month, Avadian launches a campaign highlighting a specific fraud topic, Wilbanks says.

Via email, blogs and other social media platforms, Avadian teaches audiences how to protect their personal information, the dangers of wire fraud, and even how to avoid scammers representing themselves as Avadian employees.

“We’ve been very passionate here about fraud education. because it’s not just our members that we want to educate on how to spot and stop fraud, but that’s good information for anybody to have,” Wilbanks says. “We think it’s just that’s part of our duty and part of living by the credit union mantra of people helping people that we put information out there that can be helpful to somebody.”

And Scarbrough says credit unions benefit from engaging their local communities, too.

“We’re hearing from the younger people who are coming to us as employees, and when we ask them, ‘Why did you want to work at All In Credit Union?’ they say, ‘I see the good that you’re doing in the community, and I want to be a part of that.’”

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the March 2024 issue of Business Alabama.

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