Great Lakes Credit Union serves as a catalyst for change with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.
At $1.06 billion Great Lakes Credit Union, DEI is more than an acronym. It’s an integral part of the organization’s mission to empower people and businesses in the diverse communities it serves. By offering comprehensive counseling services, financial assistance and lending programs, the credit union has made good on its promise to improve the lives of its members and community.
Great Lakes CU’s efforts in fulfilling this mission make it a worthy recipient of CUES’ first-ever DEI: Catalyst for Change award. CUES introduced the award this year to recognize a CU that has advanced diversity, equity and inclusion within its organization, community and industry.
“We’re thrilled to receive this recognition,” says CUES member Steve Bugg, Great Lakes CU’s president/CEO. “We know DEI is a journey, and this award helps validate that we’re moving in the right direction.”
Headquartered in Bannockburn, Illinois, Great Lakes CU has 79,000 members. “We sit in the suburbs of Chicago, but we also have a downtown Chicago location,” Bugg reports. “Over 50% of our membership is low-income, so we’ve put a lot of emphasis over the years in developing programs to help those who are underbanked, underserved, and come from diverse backgrounds.”
As one of eight credit unions nationwide that are a HUD-approved housing counseling agency, Great Lakes CU is making a difference in the lives of people who are struggling financially. “We think of it as banking with a mission,” says CUES member and Chief Administrative Officer Michael Hersh, who heads the credit union’s DEI leadership team. “We’re reaching out with free counseling services to anyone in our community—not just financial counseling, but credit counseling and housing counseling as well. I think that’s a key differentiator for GLCU. We’re providing outreach to the community as a whole, which allows us to have an impact beyond our membership.”
A Centralized Strategy
Great Lakes CU formed its DEI leadership team and a DEI committee as a means of facilitating a centralized DEI strategy. Senior Manager of Housing & Financial Counseling Jeanette Velazquez heads the DEI committee, while Hersh serves as the committee’s executive sponsor.
“Michael’s role is to be a resource to the committee and to make sure their work aligns with the goals, objectives and strategies of GLCU,” Bugg says. “We had a lot of DEI initiatives in existence already, but over the last year, we put everything under one umbrella to strengthen our strategic focus.”
Velazquez reports that the social unrest that occurred in the summer of 2020 intensified Great Lakes CU’s urgency to step up its DEI initiatives. “We were already engaged in conversations about how we could target great products and services to match the needs of our community, how we could provide cultural competency training before engaging in volunteer work, and how we could integrate our housing counseling agency’s mission of serving low- to moderate-income individuals into every part of our credit union,” she says. “After the murder of George Floyd, everything escalated. We had a sense that we needed to get things done ASAP, so we worked quickly to put the committee together, create a committee charter and identify concrete steps that would help us become a more diverse, equitable and inclusive credit union.”
One of the committee’s early successes was to raise cultural awareness by educating staff about various religious holidays and heritage celebrations. This eventually became a community-facing educational effort, with social media posts on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms used to commemorate important dates on the religious and cultural calendar.
Other priorities of the DEI committee have included rolling out DEI training for committee members, preparing a quarterly newsletter on DEI impacts, integrating DEI metrics in social media and marketing efforts, and adding a DEI/cultural orientation component to employee onboarding. “We felt it was important to work on multiple initiatives at once to build on our early momentum,” Velazquez reports.
The principles of diversity, equity and inclusion are embodied in the makeup of the DEI committee itself, which features participation from all levels of the organization. “We took a pragmatic approach and identified what we wanted to accomplish with our DEI program,” Hersh says. “Part of it was looking internally, with the desire to get more team members involved from a DEI perspective beyond the leadership team. That’s why we decided to form a DEI committee—to ensure grassroots involvement across all levels of our organization.”
The DEI committee launched with the participation of 13 people, including employees with roles ranging from entry-level positions, such as member specialists and call center reps, to upper management. Recent turnover on the committee has broadened participation even further. “We ensure that we give committee members proper training so that they understand what DEI is and also equip them with the tools they need to drive the initiative,” Hersh says.
Another indicator of Great Lakes CU’s dedication to DEI is inclusivity in its hiring practices, which has assured diversity among its 225 employees. “We look at our employee base as representative of the greater market we serve,” Bugg observes.
In overseeing the organization’s HR responsibilities, including hiring, Hersh reports that Great Lakes CU has implemented several recruiting strategies to ensure a diverse pool of job candidates across its footprint. “It was important to look at our team members from that lens, understanding our applicant flow in conjunction with the community we serve and attracting a diverse group from our community that understands our community best,” he explains.
Once new employees are hired, they learn about DEI through the new onboarding standards developed by the DEI committee. They also are informed about how they can serve the community through volunteering and give-back opportunities.
Great Lakes CU promotes inclusion among employees by providing them with multiple venues for sharing their opinion with senior management. “We want our employees to feel like their voices are heard,” Bugg says. “Those of us on the leadership team go out to branches and departments on a regular basis to get feedback from staff. We also have employee meetings and hold town halls where we open up the lines of communication to staff.”
Credit union leadership uses employee surveys to give employees a further opportunity to share feedback. “These surveys help us gauge what our team members are looking for and what they need from us to do a better job in serving our members as well as our community,” Hersh says.
While having a strong internal commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion is important, Hersh stresses that the Great Lakes CU is most effective at being a catalyst for change through its external interactions with the community. “Our DEI initiatives are best measured by our outreach,” he contends. “We spend a lot of time in our communities, doing what we can to put the unbanked and underbanked into a more financially secure situation. I think that’s where we have the largest impact as well as the best opportunity to build a model for potentially other credit unions to follow.”
Great Lakes CU’s outreach efforts are extensive, encompassing such activities as spearheading school supply drives during back-to-school time, partnering with local agencies to offer food relief and building lending programs with inclusivity in mind. One example is Cash-In-A-Flash, an alternative to high-interest options for those who need quick access to funds.
“Through this program, members can come to us to get a short-term loan, offered at significantly lower rates than they could get from a payday lender,” Bugg reports.
As another important differentiator, Great Lakes CU is the first state-chartered credit union in Illinois to offer a certified BankOn checking account, a safe and affordable option for the unbanked and underbanked. “This is similar to a second-chance checking program,” Bugg says. “We found that it’s not only for those who are unbanked or underbanked, but it’s also an excellent opportunity for working youth to have their own bank account and manage their own finances.”
COVID-19 heightened the need for Great Lakes CU to be impactful with its community outreach. Especially in the first months of the pandemic, there was growing demand for mortgage and rental assistance in Chicagoland communities. The credit union redoubled its efforts to make a difference.
“We secured a grant from the state of Illinois to help those most in need through COVID with mortgage and rental assistance,” Bugg says. “Individuals didn’t have to be a member of the CU to receive this assistance. It was available to anybody in the community. This opened the door for other local nonprofits to come to us and ask us to help their clients who needed counseling or financial assistance.”
Great Lakes CU also helps local businesses through its DEI efforts. For instance, the credit union is partnering with the Lake Community Foundation to launch a small-business incubator program in an economically depressed part of Lake County with a predominantly Hispanic population. “We were the only financial institution that stepped up to the plate, not only to offer financial assistance but to provide guidance and be a resource for them,” Bugg reports.
Now the incubator program is being expanded to help businesses in other low-income and diverse areas of Lake County. “They don’t have to be a GLCU small-business member to have access to these services,” Bugg reports. “We’re providing this assistance as a resource to the community.”
Great Lakes CU further reaches out to the community through the GLCU Foundation for Financial Literacy. “We see the foundation as the future of our philanthropic efforts,” Hersh reports. “Bringing various programs together under the foundation is one of our long-term goals. Eventually our community outreach, our financial literacy and education program, our housing counseling and our DEI initiatives will all sit together under the foundation’s umbrella so that they can work more collaboratively and we can achieve better leveraging of these opportunities.”
5 Strategic Pillars
Great Lakes CU’s DEI commitment is consistent with its five strategic pillars: Cultural Transformation, Exceptional Member Experience, Efficiency & Sustainability, Financial Empowerment, and Smart Growth.
“Our DEI initiatives impact all five pillars, but most especially the financial empowerment pillar, which is about working toward the greater good and empowering the communities we serve,” Bugg says.
Bugg adds that Great Lakes CU’s DEI commitment also will help employees live up to their member promise—to be responsive to members’ needs, simplify their financial lives, and make it easy for them to do business with the credit union.
“We want to build a valued partnership with all of our members, one member at a time,” he concludes. cues icon
Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to Credit Union Management.