BECU was started by 18 Boeing employees who pooled their money, all of $9, to purchase tools. The credit union since has grown into Washington’s largest credit union, managing more than $15 billion in assets. “People Helping People,” is BECU’s mission, and they don’t shy away from community engagement.
In 2015, BECU employees volunteered more than 12,500 hours of community service, and employee contributions totaled more than $257,000. The credit union leads its employees by example, and this year BECU will donate $250 for every goal saved by a Sounders FC goalkeeper. The donations will benefit YouthCare, a local nonprofit that helps donates kitchen, laundry, and other home essentials to local displaced and homeless youth.
We caught up with BECU CEO Benson Porter to talk about the importance of community engagement and corporate social good.
425 Business: BECU has been around since 1935. How has BECU’s community engagement changed over the years?
Benson Porter: Over the last 80-plus years, we’ve worked hard to stay true to our cooperative roots and principles. I think the primary thing that has changed about our community engagement has been the fact that as we’ve grown, we’ve been able to do more and help more people. As a not-for-profit organization, we put the best interests of our members first and consider our community engagement and partnerships as how we make a positive difference become reality.
A great example of these partnerships is our relationship with Junior Achievement of Washington. Our involvement started with small donations and has grown to include financial and volunteer support for JA World, an experiential learning initiative. Since 1989, we have provided $1.7 million to this great organization that is educating our youth.
425B: With so many worthy causes out there, how does BECU select which to support?
Porter: It’s true; it is a challenge! We have focused our community efforts in three major areas: Financial Empowerment, Member-Inspired Giving, and Employee-Inspired Giving.
Financial Empowerment: Providing financial education to our members and beyond has long been a priority for BECU. As we look at the numerous ways we can philanthropically support and give back to our local communities, we use a “financial empowerment lens” to ensure an organization is in line with our focus on supporting knowledge-based programs that teach money management skills to our youth and/or adults. In 2015, we delivered 270 financial education classes, reaching more than 5,750 people, including middle school and high school students, BECU members and the general community.
In honor of BECU’s 80th birthday last year, we launched “Closing for Good.” We closed our doors for half a day so that nearly 1,300 BECU employees could teach smart money management and financial literacy to more than 3,000 students at high schools across the state. Based upon the tremendous response, we plan to do it again this October.
Member-Inspired Giving: Our members are passionate about their community, and many suggest organizations for consideration. It’s nearly impossible to choose among so many worthy suggestions so three years ago we started the annual “People Helping People” awards to create a forum where BECU members can suggest and help select organizations to be honored. There are four awards – Community Benefit Award, People’s Choice Award, Employee’s Choice Award and Member Volunteer of the Year. Through this program we’ve given $300,000 to local organizations nominated by our members. I can tell you, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room at last year’s event when Big-Brained Superheroes Club was highlighted as the recipient of the Member Volunteer of the Year award and $25,000. It’s an amazing organization that helps kids find their hidden strengths (a.k.a. super powers) through science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. We’ll be announcing our 2016 People Helping People winners in the next few weeks.
Employee Inspired Giving: We are lucky to have community-minded members and employees. We give every BECU employee 12 paid hours off per year to volunteer with organizations of their choice, and we match employee donations up to $5,000. Through these programs our employees volunteered more than 12,500 hours last year and donated more than $514,000 to local causes.
In total, we provided more than $3.5 million in donations last year through these programs and many others.
425B: BECU was able to reach some big giving goals in 2015. What goals are you reaching for in 2016?
Porter: We think a lot about how to give back and how to make our donations work as hard as they can for our community. We have a great framework set for our philanthropic efforts, so our biggest focus is on ensuring our existing programs expand and evolve to better meet the needs of our community every year. In 2016, we expect to exceed what we were able to do last year. We also expect to break the 1-million-member milestone, which is an incredible achievement and honor. As an organization, we are very conscious that this groundswell of support is because our community trusts us, both as a financial resource and as a force for good in the community. It’s our duty to continue to earn this trust at every turn.
425B: You have worked at a number of different banks and credit unions through your career. What makes BECU different than the other organizations you’ve been involved with?
Porter: For me, I think it goes back to our founding – at its core, BECU is about people helping people. The way BECU is structured, as a not-for-profit credit union, means we have a responsibility to both our members and our community. We take our revenues and return them, not to shareholders or investors, but to our members in the form of lower fees, better rates and programs. Whether it’s offering innovative products and services – like a leading mobile app with budgeting tools – to providing competitive products and financial education, BECU is rooted in the basic principle of giving back, in ways big and small, to further financial empowerment and improve the communities where our members live. We are fortunate to be one of the largest credit unions in the country, and we strive to leverage our scale to make even bigger positive impact for our members and communities.
425B: You were the banking committee staff director for the Washington State Senate. How did public service influence your decision making in the banking world?
Porter: Public service showed me the strength of cooperation. There’s a spirit of cooperation among credit unions not found in many other industries. In partnership with other credit unions across the country, we are able to offer the convenience of branch and ATM networks as big as the largest banks in the country. BECU also works to build and strengthen community development credit unions, which serve low- and moderate-income people and communities, by providing financial support, guidance, innovation and encouragement to help serve members of all walks of life nationwide. In 2015, our philanthropic support helped more than a dozen community development credit unions across the country. Based upon my experience with BECU and the credit union industry, the fundamental difference is that decisions are made based on what’s in the best interest of our owner-members, not Wall Street.
425B: Why is it important for a credit union to be involved with the community, instead of simply offer good value for its members?
Porter: A credit union is “owned” by members of the community, so we are only as strong as our members and the communities we serve. This is why we invest in financial literacy, education and scholarships, philanthropy and sustainability. Going back to those original 18 members in 1935, it’s in our cooperative DNA to do what we can to empower individual members and make a positive difference at the community level.