The first Credit Union was established 158 years ago. The need for Credit Unions arose out of the fact that rural communities in Germany faced a severe shortage of financial institutions because these villages and small towns were viewed as unbankable: the flow of cash was slow and seasonal, and human resources were very limited. Since their first inceptions by Franz Hermann Schulze-Delitzsch and Friedrich Wilhelm Raiffeisen, Credit  Unions always levered social capital to organize themselves. More importantly, credit unions were always seen as an integral part of the local community.

While the trend of globalization will continue, we experience a need from consumers to develop stronger connections within their community. At Farmer Markets, local produce stands get more traffic than any organic stand. This is another Wall-Street-Tarp backlash: Would you rather support a faceless corporation with your hard-earned money or a local store that has been a mainstay in your community for years?

I would argue this trend is  just getting started: We will see businesses focusing on hyper-local communities. Do I feel an affiliation with Los Angeles? Sure, I live in this aggregation of small cities. (And love the LA Dodgers.) But my real connection is with the Eastside of Los Angeles: Silverlake, Los Feliz and Eagle Rock. More specifically, Mt. Washington.  I want this part of Los Angeles to prosper. I want the streets to be safe, my kid to grow up happy and healthy, and for all that to happen, I need a lively and prospering community.

And, that’s where Credit Unions come in: While we create this global village through new technologies and interactions, Credit Unions have a unique opportunity to tap into our desire to revive our local communities. I’m not asking them to change lending standards or business practices. But I’m asking Credit Unions to become a beacon in the community. Wherever that community might be: offline, online and mobile. Show your commitment to community by helping people:

  • Host networking events for entrepreneurs and start-ups
  • Develop a site with the goal to  crowd-source ideas how to improve the living experience in your community
  • Team up with Angel Investors and help launch start-ups with micro-loans (ok, maybe I’m asking to change lending standards just a little bit)
  • Work with local artists to beautify the neighborhood. Maybe one artist can paint the outside of an empty, ugly building in exchange for showcasing his work in your local branch.
  • Convert your parking lot once a week into a lunch place where people can buy local food, hang with the neighbors and develop closer connections.
  • Use Social Media to aggregate local content. Whenever people in your community try to find out what’s going on in their community, they should be able to find it on your Facebook page and in your Twitter stream.
  • Why not turn your local branch into a community hub?

If your local credit union is the place where your community congregates, do you think anyone cares anymore about glossy advertising from Wall Street banks?

Helping others, delivering value, becoming an integral part of the community. That’s what Social Marketing is about. Actually, that’s what the future of business is all about. Is there any business better positioned to become a beacon in the community than credit unions? I would argue not. It’s time for Credit Unions to seize the day.

(I wrote these initial thoughts on my flight to San Francisco after having had the pleasure and honor to attend the Think 10 Conference in Scottsdale, curated by CO-OP. I was asked to speak with Fabian Geyrhalter from Geyrhalter Design and Thomas Woerner about Social Media 101.)