My visit to America’s Credit Union Museum.

Last week I was on vacation in Boston with my wife, Amy, and son, Ivan. It was a very nice trip – we visited the aquarium, zoo and children’s museum. I had a coffee with my friend Ron Shevlin. We saw lots of friends and family, including my cousin Tiven Weinstock, a sometimes commenter on my blog.

On Thursday, we drove up to Manchester, New Hampshire to meet my friend Morriss Partee at America’s Credit Union Museum.

Yes, I know, how incredibly credit union geeky of me (I know, I know…). But I’m glad I went, it was well worth my time.

First of all, it was incredibly kind of them to open the museum for the two of us (my wife and son went to the nearby Manchester Science Museum, and who could blame them really). We had a great guided tour by a volunteer named Gloria.

She explained that the museum is in the house where the first credit union in America was founded. It was founded thanks to three people who saw a need for the local mill-workers to save their money safely and get access to affordable credit: Monsignor Pierre Hevey of the nearby St. Marie’s Church recognized the need among his parishioners; local attorney Joseph Boivin was the first president of the credit union and allowed the CU to operate from his home (his home is where the museum is today); and Alphonse Desjardins, who led the creation of Canada’s first credit unions (Caisses Populaires Desjardins) in Quebec, advised on the project.

There is something touching about the museum – it’s history and simple, honest roots. It is emblematic of local community members coming together to pool their resources for the common good. And it is that common good which is so easily lost as communities grow, and local organizations gain a vested interest in their own growth and existence, sometimes totally divorced from the initial community needs that spawned the organization in the first place.

Afterwards, Morriss and I got into a great conversation about the role of CUs today. I am sorry we didn’t get more time to finish our conversation.

In my three and a half years in CU-land, I have been torn between really believing in credit unions as a vital democratic form of financial institution and, well, just not really caring all that much. Clearly today’s financial crisis proves we need ethical and responsible places to conduct our financial business. FIs rooted in long term thinking, and not just out for the quick profit.

Many in the CU movement believe CUs are superior to banks from this point of view. And on a certain level I agree with this. When your profits go to shareholders, you can more easily become corrupted and lose sight of equitable business practices.

But I also believe there are lots of incredible banks out there doing great work (ShoreBank anyone?). I’m not sure what is gained from pitting CUs against banks, we’re just alternatives that in most cases are too subtly different from each other for any regular consumer to really know the difference. Perhaps we just need a Goliath to make us feel more like David (I think Morriss wondered that aloud, but I’m not sure if I’m quoting him correctly).

I know in the CU world the bank versus credit union debate is a big one, but I’m not so wrapped up in it. It was very interesting seeing the birthplace of the American credit union, and I recommend anyone in the credit union movement/industry/system to visit it if you’re in New England.

Actually, scratch that, anyone in the entire financial services industry should pay the museum a visit, because ultimately we were all born out of a need, still incredibly relevant, for people to access savings and credit vehicles. We should not be in business to serve our own needs or make shareholders wealthy, we should be there with solutions to basic consumer needs. Solutions that work for the common good, where it isn’t about profits, nor about charity, but about service, as a sign in the first room of the museum says. I don’t think credit unions have a patent on that concept in the FI world, but being a co-operative helps CUs stay grounded in that concept.

In my experience, it is mostly CU people who struggle with that debate and feel a sense of connection to the roots of community banking. And perhaps that, in and of itself, speaks volumes about the heart of the movement.

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