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How Opportunities Credit Union Is Setting Up Itself—And Its Community—For Financial Success

Community PartnersLow Income Designated Credit Union

From a young age, Kate Laud dreamed about someday being a CEO. At Dartmouth, Kate was an English major who liked numbers, and her father encouraged her to aspire to “run something interesting” one day. Although that advice didn’t narrow down Kate’s list of possible career trajectories, over the years, her ambition to eventually lead an organization helped to guide her through various financial roles, from a portfolio manager at a bank in New York City to a futures and options strategist at a bank in Chicago. Eventually, Kate became the CFO for a New Jersey nonprofit dedicated to developing affordable housing. 

However, in addition to wanting to one day be a CEO, there was something else that Kate always wanted to do: live in Vermont. Not only was Kate drawn to the state’s natural beauty, but she had family in the area, and she had always been smitten by Vermonters’ community-oriented dispositions. When a CFO-related position opened up at the University of Vermont Foundation, Kate jumped at the opportunity. She left New Jersey, settled into life in The Green Mountain State, and dove headfirst into her new nonprofit role.

In 2019, a recruiter approached Kate about a leadership position at Opportunities Credit Union, a CDFI-certified financial institution founded in 1989. Although Kate had already seen the ad for the position in the local newspaper and was interested, she didn’t think that she knew enough about credit unions to be qualified to serve as one’s president. According to Kate, credit unions weren’t on her radar in New Jersey, and it wasn’t until after she’d moved to Vermont that she discovered just how much of a force credit unions were in the state. Kate agreed to meet with the recruiter, and in September of that same year, she became the credit union’s president. When the CEO retired a few months later, Kate assumed her role as well, fulfilling one of Kate’s professional dreams. “I had a lot of technical banking and nonprofit experiences,” she said, “and somehow those came together in the credit union world.”

‘We Don’t Say No, We Say When’

It didn’t take long for Kate to face her first CEO-sized dilemma at Opportunities Credit Union. During her first week as CEO, Kate was invited out to lunch with a colleague at a larger credit union. The agenda was collaboration. The topic of mergers had come up before, and although Kate acknowledged that a merger could be a smart thing to do long term, in the moment, she knew it wasn’t the right time. “I wanted to give running this a shot first,” Kate said, “and I wanted to see how the magic works and where we could make adjustments.”

Kate paired the decision to remain a standalone credit union with a number of internal institutional changes. For example, Kate leaned into her nonprofit background and hired a full-time grant writer. Together, they sought out new grant opportunities that could fund new lines of business lending and programmatic offerings. The credit union also chose to partner with CNote through its Impact CashTM Solution, which channels FDIC-and NCUA insured dollars from socially minded investors to mission-driven partners like Opportunities Credit Union. 

Additionally, soon after taking over as CEO, Kate and her team had the opportunity to sit down and draft the next iteration of Opportunities’ four-year strategic plan. After a lengthy SWOT analysis, it became evident that if the credit union was going to survive, then it was going to have to pursue its mission while remaining conscious of its margin. The subsequent document has served as a roadmap for Kate and her team as they strive both to serve Opportunities Credit Union’s members and to grow the institution’s margins. 

This was especially true during the early waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, when deposits drove up liquidity but falling interest rates meant that financial institutions like Opportunities earned very little interest on that cash. To bolster its margin, the credit union focused on lending areas like small business loans while continuing to help people in its community. The credit union also expanded its robust vehicle and credit-building loan programs. In 2021, Opportunities was able to assist in retaining 422 small business jobs and made 38% of its mortgage loans to New Americans, including to members of the Asian and African immigrant communities who resettled in Vermont.

Not only is the credit union intentional about collaborating with refugee and immigrant organizations to connect with these New Americans, but Opportunities is equally intentional about making sure that its staff reflects that global diversity. For example, Opportunities has a multilingual team that speaks languages from around the world. In fact, the credit union’s loan department head is a former Nepali refugee who’s able to connect with other New Americans on a personal level. “That is one secret to surviving,” said Kate. “People can get a mortgage anywhere, but it’s the relationship that is really hard to come by. I don’t think you can walk into a larger credit union and sit down with someone who mirrors you ethnically anywhere but here. That gives us an edge.” 

In addition to serving New Americans, Opportunities Credit Union also serves community members who are unhoused and underbanked, including individuals who are struggling with mental health, living in homeless shelters, and/or surviving on social security disability payments. According to Kate, the credit union works at the intersection of mental health and money. Although she acknowledges that she and her team aren’t social workers, Kate said that the credit union is able to “help people whose emotional needs touch their financial needs” through free financial counseling that’s aimed at building their credit back. Importantly, this financial coaching is offered to anyone in need, not just credit union members. That includes those who are behind on student loan and credit card payments.

Kate shared one recent story about a twenty-something mother of two who’d purchased a home just before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, when said mother lost her job, she fell behind on her mortgage payments. The big credit union foreclosed on her home, and the woman and her two children moved into the family car. Eventually, she found her way to Opportunities, who agreed to help her get her house back. Kate and her team contacted the other credit union and asked it to hold off on auctioning off the home. It agreed, and during that time, the woman was able to get a job and Opportunities was able to negotiate to get her and her kids back into their home. “Our informal mission statement is ‘we don’t say no, we say when,’” said Kate. “We knew we would find a way to get this woman’s house back because, as credit unions, we don’t compete, we collaborate. It’s a movement: we work together, and we move together.”

Opportunities Abound

When asked about the future of Opportunities Credit Union, Kate is quick to note that she isn’t a fortune teller. Still, she’s doing everything that she can in the present moment to make it easier for the credit union to survive—and thrive—for years to come. For example, Opportunities recently used grant money to invest in software that has helped it to drastically speed up onerous compliance tasks. The credit union has also outsourced much of its accounting, IT, and HR work to third-party entities, including to other credit unions. In this way, as a small credit union, Opportunities has recreated itself to be less dependent on individual employees and more resilient as an institution. 

Additionally, in 2022 alone, Opportunities made 10 staff promotions from within the organization. According to Kate, this has been a win-win for the credit union not only because those employees already know Opportunities’ culture, mission, and systems, but because it’s signaled to entry-level hires and prospective recruits that they can expect to receive the training and support they need to similarly move up the ranks at the credit union. Ironically, a couple of new recruits are coming to Opportunities from recently merged credit unions in the region. “Our membership is very different from larger credit unions, and thankfully we don’t compete with them head-to-head,” Kate said. “But, it can be good for Opportunities when larger credit unions merge. People don’t always have to leave, but when they do, they’re coming to us looking for a different opportunity—no pun intended.”

Learn More:

  • Opportunities Credit Union provides innovative and affordable loan and deposit programs for credit building and repair, business and home ownership, consumer needs, modified vehicles, adaptive equipment and energy improvements along with financial education and counseling solutions that have been tailored for our target market.
  • CNote is a women-led investment platform that empowers individuals and institutions to invest locally to further economic equality, racial justice, gender equity, and address climate change.

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