From Matthew Cropp:
When Alphonse Desjardins and Edward Filene began spreading credit unionism in North America at the beginning of the twentieth century, their primary motivation was to stop loan sharks from preying on those of modest means.
At that time, most banks felt that small consumer loans were too risky and costly to be worth providing, and so, when they needed credit, working people often had to turn to loan sharks who would charge hundreds, or even thousands, of percent interest. Such debts could quickly spin out of control and immiserate borrowers, who would often end up paying many times the loan’s principle.
Thus, to bring affordable credit within reach of millions of people, the early credit union model functioned to leverage the social capital of members by requiring that credit unions have a narrow common bond. In practice, this often took the form of a workplace, church, or neighborhood; essentially, any community in which people regularly interacted with each other in roles other than that of “credit union member.” The social knowledge generated by those relationships was then used by the organization’s credit committee to determine whether or not to approve a loan.
The volunteers on the credit committee were respected community members who were elected democratically by the membership as a whole, and they generally viewed their role as an important trust. Thus, while commercial banks shied away from borrowers of modest means, credit unions were able to leverage the social capital of their “host” communities in order to fill the gap by providing low-interest loans to their members.
However, as the banking industry grew and became more sophisticated following the Second World War, the consumer credit niche that credit unions had dominated became more and more competitive. Pressured to provide increasingly complex and capital-intensive services in order to remain relevant, the nexus of the credit union movement’s growth shifted from the creation of new credit unions to increasing the size of existing credit unions through mergers. In 1969, the number of individual institutions peaked at 23,761 before beginning a steady, continuous decline.
At its core, this transition from small, tight-knit organizations to the large, community-based credit unions that form the bulk of the contemporary movement represented a profound trade-off.
On the one hand, the new credit unions could leverage economies of scale in order to provide newly developed services that would be far beyond the means of a traditional credit union to offer. Conversely, as they added an increasing diversity of membership groups to their common bonds, the social capital that the new credit unions could leverage for the accurate provision of credit rapidly declined, and the responsibility for determining credit-worthiness shifted from the volunteer credit committee to the professional loan officer.
On net, however, the benefits of economies of scale seemed to trump the losses that came with decreasing institutional social capital, and so the trend towards larger and larger credit unions has persisted down to the present.
The recent (re)emergence of p2p lending suggests that, for credit unions, the economies of scale vs. economies of social capital trade-off may no longer be necessary.
This does not mean a return to the simple credit unions of old; indeed, the nature of “community” has radically changed for many people since the first half of the twentieth century. Back then, there were numerous institutions that people expected to remain part of for large parts of their lives: the life-long employer, the church parish where one was both baptized and laid to rest, etc.
In the modern, globalized, intensely interconnected world, however, the flexibility of many people’s careers and lives means there are few large, geographically stable communities in which they are deeply invested that can be tapped by credit unions for social capital. Community still exists, of course, but its webs of trust and obligation are widely distributed and far more protean than in previous eras.
As such, fully leveraging the social capital of credit union members while also retaining the benefits of economies of scale requires a re-examination of a subtle aspect of credit union identity. In the past, credit unions were founded as institutions that provided their host communities with the infrastructure necessary to financially reinvest in their constituent members. However, as credit unions grew in size through mergers, the institutions’ identification with any particular community decayed, and with that identification went the ability to mobilize that community’s social capital.
What has remained is a commitment to serving the member as an individual rather than as a member of a specific community.
It is this contemporary commitment that provides a powerful opportunity for credit unions to re-engage with the social capital of their members. Instead of being devoted to the development of an already existing community, credit unions might see their current mission as facilitating the development of the plurality of communities in which their members are participants.
There are a variety of ways to approach this goal. In my opinion an obvious one is for credit unions to construct infrastructure that allows their members to lend directly to each other on a peer-to-peer basis. By providing expert guidance and systems designed to make originating, receiving, and collecting such loans a relatively simple process, credit unions would be empowering their members to fully leverage their idiosyncratic social knowledge of each other to increase the availability of credit, especially for people in their communities for whom loans at reasonable rates are currently out of reach.
Though utilizing a novel approach, I would argue that such a program would, in fact, be carrying on the vitally important work, begun by Desjardins and Filene more than a century ago, of credit unions harnessing the power of social capital to improve the lives of under-served and marginalized populations by making available affordable credit.
Matthew Cropp is author of the blog Credit Union History and earned his MA in History at the University of Vermont.