Sometimes the “just a volunteer” attitude can get in the way of the level of work required on the board of a credit union. This a position with legal levels of authority and it should not be undervalued. Some credit unions are now paying their boards and for some that changes the level of seriousness taken on by the directors. Of course, like everything, it is complicated and there are no clear answers.
By Kevin Smith
It’s been a very busy second half of the year. From August to December, I was out with a lot of credit union people for a wide variety of reasons. And I am so very happy to be back out working with credit union people. But one thing is bothering me lately and you get to hear about it. What’s bothering me lately is the phrase, “but I’m just a volunteer” or some variation thereof. I think you know where I’m going with this. The implication behind this phrase is that directors shouldn’t have too much asked of them. This implies that this isn’t a real job, because you don’t get paid for it, or that it’s charity work. It suggests that you can’t (or shouldn’t) ask too much of the people on the board.
This troubles me a great deal.
There’s No Norm
But let me get something straight, right away. I’m not saying this is the norm, or that the majority of CU board members feel or act this way. No. That’s not the case. Many board members I know and work with are tireless, dedicated people. There are some AMAZING boards out there.
But … there are enough “Just a Volunteer”s to give me pause, to make me worry. I know anecdotally that lackluster boards have been enough to make credit unions merge when they didn’t have to, or worse. So, when I hear this and see related behavior it makes me question the model.
Credit union board members sign an oath and have a legal fiduciary duty to the organization. (There are still people shocked when I say, “you know you can get sued for this, right?”) Overseeing a financial services cooperative is not to be taken lightly. It’s not the same as other kinds of volunteer work. I’m being very careful about how I’m talking about other volunteer work. I do both and we should be able to make the distinction.
- It bothers me that people sign up for this work and then don’t understand the effort required.
- It concerns me when I see directors with decades of service who still don’t understand the importance of what’s at stake or feel the need to come to meetings prepared.
- It unnerves me when “experienced” directors don’t feel the need to get ongoing training or even keep up with industry trends and news.
- It disquiets me to find out how many board members don’t have any idea how much they don’t know, and that they’re not even trying to find out.
This isn’t new to me. I’ve seen it throughout my credit union career. I used to be part of the CUNA planning the volunteer training and conferences. Once I got an attendee evaluation form where the recent participant bristled with anger at the questions about the curriculum at the event. He informed me that he “deserved” this trip (yes, we were in the tropics) for all of his “hard” work through the year. AND, that’s why he didn’t come to any of the sessions/training. He didn’t think he should have to. <insert frowny emoji here>
I love the not-for-profit, cooperative structure of credit unions. It’s what makes us us, and it’s fabulous. But I’m concerned that we’re not getting the best effort from the people at the top. For the last few years, particularly after the start of the pandemic, I’ve been talking to frustrated board members who are having a very difficult time recruiting board members. This scenario doesn’t bode well.
Is There a Case for Paying Board Members?
Yes, I know. This is already legal in some states. But not every credit union that can, pays their board. In fact, I’ve been in discussions with frantically adamant directors who could be paid but refuse, because it would change the structure and make us too bank-like. There are die-hards on that side of the aisle. But I’m starting to wonder if that ideological purity is worth risking having mediocre directors and low expectations.
I have a client from one of those pay-the-board states. They hired me to help them raise the capabilities of the board and review what they could do to improve. Their first dump of information to me revealed that they were already doing the things that I typically recommend. They knew that they were following most best practices, but the chair and vice-chair are adamant that they all have a plan for next steps and for improvement. All of the directors understand that this is part of earning their salary on the board. The money is not exorbitant, but it’s also not a token amount. It’s enough to be motivating. There are clear expectations about the workload and the ongoing education and training.
Years ago, I remember talking to and learning from the inimitable Mark Lynch. He brought his Australian experience on this topic to the U.S. He said that what board members in Australia were getting paid was offset by the travel and training budgets that then got cut. In his experience it was a null-sum gain. That’s not the answer either.
I do believe that volunteer boards can recruit and achieve at the highest levels, and that they can establish high expectations for the work and hold each other accountable. Yes, it CAN be done. I’ve seen it. I’ve also seen lots of well-intentioned volunteers who can’t get past “nice” to hold each other to barely high enough expectations for fear of running someone off and the dread of further recruiting and onboarding. This isn’t good enough for something as extra-special, wunderbar and important as a credit union.
The paid board model, at least in one way, puts the burden of accountability on the paycheck. I don’t know if this is the best model. But, I worry …