We often hear calls to action from prominent people, only for those words to fade from the public consciousness without much happening to follow it up.   But almost 18 months on from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s much reported comments about payday lenders and we are seeing many signs of welcome practical action in the Church of England.

The Archbishop’s Task Group on Responsible Credit and Savings launched a website last month to tell the stories of both national and local initiatives which have been inspired by #toyourcredit, Justin Welby’s campaign to create a fairer financial system.

One of the first, tangible effects of the desire to increase the use of credit unions is the pilot scheme for the Church Credit Champions Network (CCCN). The scheme, run by The Centre for Theology and Community (CTC) and the Church Urban Fund launched in May and has already engaged with over 100 churches in London. 75 lay and clergy Credit Champions have been trained and real results are being seen already, as David Barclay, Faith in Public Life Officer at the CTC explains in a recent blog:

“That action is now beginning to bear fruit in a variety of ways. Churches in Islington have come together to launch a ‘500 for Islington’ campaign to find 500 new members for London Capital Credit Union in the next year. St James the Less and seven other churches in Pimlico are working together to open what would be the first credit union branch in Westminster. Meanwhile in Hackney, St James’, Clapton has opened up its building and had members trained up to help local people access the services of London Community Credit Union.”

Members of the Copleston Community Church in Peckham walked to the offices of London Mutual Credit Union at the end of October to deliver over 130 membership applications. People from both the church and the local community took part in the march which was organised by Theophilia Shaw, who was recently appointed as Church Credit Champions Network Co-ordinator for South London.

A similar march took place in Hackney last month, delivering 134 applications to London Community Credit Union where a campaign was launched to recruit 500 new members in the next year.

David is enthusiastic about the potential of the network, but realistic about how long it will take to replicate this success much more widely:

“Developing the network is a long term process, as it’s about trying to embed this issue in the life and the heart of local churches. That does not happen straight away – but we are really excited by the progress there has been. We’ve had a huge amount of interest from churches, people are really keen to be trained up as credit champions, and now we’re starting to see that translate into concrete action that will benefit people.”

If every Church of England church did eventually replicate the success of those churches in Peckham and Hackney and encouraged 130 members of its community to join their local credit union we would see more than 2 million extra credit union members. If those among them who were employers or senior managers helped set up payroll deduction schemes then those numbers could snowball.

And if other organisations, both religious and secular, adopt what the CCCN learns from its pilots, there is even more potential for people from across society to engage with credit unions.

Another output of the Task Group’s work is plans to establish savings clubs in schools around the country and tie this in with appropriate financial education. Many credit unions already have partnerships with schools and have helped thousands of young people to develop a savings habit and learn about managing finances. We know that those early savings habits are vital in giving people the best chance of continuing with good financial habits into adulthood.

But whether they join a credit union at age 7 or age 37, the most important factors for the success of the credit union sector is that these new members become active members and that they are part of a diverse membership of savers and borrowers.

Important as it is to help young people to gain good financial habits by working in schools, it is vital that scalable solutions are developed so new schemes are set up in a cost effective way . Young savers don’t bring in income and efforts to expand work in schools must be balanced with work which brings in the income credit unions need – and ultimately that is making good loans and making sure those loans are repaid.

It is encouraging to see that the Church’s campaign is, on the whole, reflective of the view that credit unions are for everyone, not just those who would otherwise struggle to get affordable credit.

If we are to sustainably expand, it is vital that the whole community is encouraged to get behind their local credit unions – and use them.

Church communities are themselves reflective of the diversity of the communities they live in; worshippers have a range of incomes, they are both employed and employers. Harnessing the potential of churchgoers as members, volunteers and partners is one way in which credit unions can extend grow and extend their impact.

But if we and our partners in churches and elsewhere put in all this effort to attract new joiners, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they will convert into active members. In parallel to this welcome activity to promote credit unions as a fairer financial alternative, we need to demonstrate that we can provide the value and the products that people need.

Very few of us make our financial choices on ethics alone; we can be persuaded that something is a good thing to do, but that is only the first step. Once credit unions have a new member, they then have the opportunity to reassure and delight in the level of service, the products and the credit union difference. It is this which can convert a member in name only into an active and valuable part of the credit union community.

Copied with permission from Mark Lyonette's Blog, December 2014 

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