Taking a Leadership Role in DEI

Jeff Disterhoft Broderick Binns Lindsay Cannaday and Kenia Calderon Ceron of GreenState Credit Union
Contributing Writer

9 minutes

GreenState CU aspires to be a true catalyst for change by encouraging others to commit to diversity, equity and inclusion.

GreenState Credit Union has intrinsically woven the ideals of diversity, equity and inclusion into the fabric of its organization. All 975 employees and the board of directors share the organization’s DEI commitment, which the CU demonstrates through such wide-ranging efforts as an ambitious initiative to increase homeownership among people of color, a bilingual strategy to meet the needs of Latino members, and a generous charitable giving program that earmarks millions for causes dedicated to racial, immigrant and refugee equity.

Elevating its DEI commitment even further, GreenState CU takes a leadership role by encouraging other credit unions to participate in its community endeavors. The CU also partners extensively with community nonprofits that have similar DEI goals. Taking such a proactive approach makes GreenState CU a worthy recipient of the 2022 CUES DEI: Catalyst for Change Award. CUES introduced the award in 2021 to recognize a credit union annually for doing exceptional work in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion issues within its organization, its community and the industry. 

“We’re humbled by the recognition,” says CUES member Jeff Disterhoft, president/CEO of $11.5 billion GreenState CU, North Liberty, Iowa. “It was 110% a team effort, and we’re honored, especially given all the great things that credit unions across the country are doing these days.”

GreenState CU most directly embodied the “catalyst for change” description when it developed its ambitious 10/10 initiative with the intention of addressing Iowa’s racial homeownership gap. Launching the initiative in 2021, the CU pledged to invest 10% of its assets over a 10-year period in the form of home loans to people of color. For GreenState CU, this pledge equates to slightly more than $1 billion. The CU has already exceeded $280 million of that goal since inception of the program two years ago. 

Seeking to make the 10/10 initiative more impactful, GreenState CU asked other Iowa credit unions to join in this endeavor. Already 57% of the state’s credit unions (as measured by assets) have committed to the program, and another 20% are considering it. This effort speaks to GreenState CU’s aspiration to be a leader in DEI, with the goal of motivating other credit unions in Iowa and eventually in the region and nation to undertake similar efforts.

“One credit union in one market may not be able to move the needle much,” Disterhoft acknowledges, “but if we as an industry take on this challenge, we can make a meaningful difference in the lives of not only today’s generation but for generations to come.”

An Organization-Wide Commitment

GreenState CU has undertaken its DEI efforts to better serve the totality of its 390,000 members, the majority of whom live in Iowa and northern Illinois. To ensure organization-wide participation in its DEI efforts, the CU established an internal DEI committee in the spring of 2017. Disterhoft describes the committee as “active and growing,” with 22 staff members currently participating.

“We have engaged staff from every corner of our organization in our internal DEI committee,” he reports. “This committee oversees our educational efforts [and] cultural celebrations and addresses how GreenState can continue to be a better place for all.”

To ensure that DEI gets priority attention, GreenState CU has dedicated staff resources specifically to that purpose. CUES member Broderick Binns serves as the credit union’s DEI coordinator, coming on board in that role in February 2022. He leads the organization’s DEI committee and has also established employee resource groups at the credit union. 

In addition, the CU has a two-person business development department that oversees the inclusion and growth of members of color across its field of membership. “Lindsay Cannaday (VP/business development director and a CUES member) and Kenia Calderon Ceron (VP/bilingual business development director) are working together to develop culturally relevant products, update our policies and build relationships with external partners,” Disterhoft says.

GreenState CU’s DEI commitment is further evident in the diversity of the staff itself—all the better to serve an increasingly diverse membership. Currently 7% of membership is Latino, and the CU has doubled its bilingual staff over the past 18 months to meet their needs.

To achieve its ongoing goal of greater staff diversity, GreenState CU has adjusted how it searches and screens for job candidates. “We have leveraged diverse job boards, we have an employee recruitment program, and we highlight diversity on our website,” Disterhoft reports.

Demonstrating a strong commitment to DEI has been effective in attracting new employees to GreenState CU—especially candidates for whom DEI causes have strong appeal. “Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion have been a focal point over the past few years and continue to be at the forefront of workplace concerns among job applicants and employees,” Disterhoft says. “Surveys show more than three out of four job seekers and employees report that a diverse workplace is an important factor when evaluating companies and job offers.”

Jeff Disterhoft
GreenState Credit Union
To implement a successful DEI strategy, leaders need to feel comfortable enough to acknowledge what they don’t know and be eager to learn.

An Intersection of Good

Credit unions that show a commitment to DEI are fulfilling their mission to be a force for good in their communities. However, Disterhoft contends that prioritizing DEI also is an effective way for credit unions to enhance their bottom lines.

“Addressing DEI issues is one of those rare intersections between doing good and what’s good for business,” he observes. “It’s doing good because we’re helping historically marginalized communities. It’s also good for business because some of those communities are among the fastest-growing demographics in our state and nation.”

Those in marginalized communities have been the primary beneficiaries of GreenState CU’s updated lending policies. “Through the efforts led by our business development department, our lending practices have expanded access to underserved markets,” Disterhoft reports.

As part of its 10/10 initiative, GreenState CU has updated its policies to better support members who have historically faced systemic barriers to homeownership. As a result, there has been an increase in participation among people of color in the CU’s Affordable Home Loan Program over the past couple of years. 

“Since 2020, we’ve seen a steady increase in applications and closed loans yearly,” Disterhoft says. “In 2022, we’ve closed more loans than the previous year despite the slowdown across the nation in mortgage lending. Our closed loans are up a total of 14% to Black and Hispanic members. And 10% of all outstanding purchase loans have been made to Black and Hispanic members. These numbers are a direct reflection of our intention and commitment to achieving housing equity.”

As additional support, the Affordable Home Loan Program offers down payment assistance for qualified borrowers and also features a credit-counseling component for those who do not qualify for loans. The goal is that, through credit counseling, they will improve their chances of successfully applying for a loan in the future. 

Addressing the needs of underserved members was also the rationale behind the CU’s recent launch of an ITIN lending program, which allows immigrants to open accounts and access loan programs with individual taxpayer identification numbers. This helps eliminate a barrier for those who previously were unable to access such services because they lacked a Social Security number.

“Not many organizations have established an ITIN program,” Disterhoft says. “With our reach, we can serve immigrants across our field of membership. Our staff has been trained, and our policies allow us to be flexible to help our immigrant members achieve their financial goals.”

Beyond its lending practices, GreenState CU has taken other steps to foster inclusivity and address the racial disparities hindering communities of color. Among them is the development of an emergent bilingual strategy, which focuses on meeting the needs of the CU’s bilingual communities. Having a larger bilingual staff is a part of this strategy, and there also is an effort to facilitate communication with bilingual members by collecting their preferred language at account opening. 

“So far, we have captured the preferred language of 40% of our total membership,” Disterhoft reports. “This will help us better serve our members whose first language is not English.”

Also as part of this strategy, GreenState CU has translated its website, mobile app, online banking and loan/deposit applications into Spanish. “Our efforts to make ourselves accessible in other languages have helped us ensure our immigrant members understand all the benefits our relationship,” Disterhoft explains. “Diversifying our staff has helped communities of color trust us as well because they see themselves represented at GreenState.”

Aligning With Others

The leaders at GreenState CU realize that DEI efforts have more widespread impact if organizations can work together. Therefore, the CU has aligned with other organizations that have similar goals. “We have built strategic partnerships with nonprofits trusted by communities of color to expand awareness of the credit union difference,” Disterhoft adds.

Just a few of those nonprofit groups include the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs, which works to empower underrepresented Iowans by eliminating economic, social and cultural barriers; the Multicultural Development Center of Iowa, which provides free education, training and business incubation services to underserved communities; Bridge Communities Inc., which serves homeless families in DuPage County, Illinois; and the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families, which helps individuals and families in Des Moines reach their work and career goals.  

GreenState CU also stresses the importance of supporting others who have shown their dedication to DEI causes. “In the communities we serve, we’re intentionally expanding support to nonprofit partners that have a focus on racial equity,” Disterhoft says. “In 2021, we supported our communities by giving back approximately $2.6 million to over 700 events and programs in Iowa. In 2022, we expanded our support by donating nearly $3.5 million to 880-plus events and programs in Iowa and Illinois.”

Beyond the financial support, GreenState CU also provides community nonprofits with financial literacy tools at no cost to these organizations. 

An Ever-Evolving Process

Being effective with DEI requires a never-ending effort to meet the changing needs of the market, but Disterhoft stresses that the effort is definitely worth it. “Fostering inclusion helps everyone in our world, from our workforce to our member owners. Committing resources to your DEI strategy will ensure continuity of the strategy.”

DEI is a complicated arena, however, meaning that organizations are likely to make a misstep or two that will require introspection and correction. At GreenState CU, Disterhoft identifies one such mistake as being too slow in addressing the social ramifications following the death of George Floyd. “Our messaging internally and externally could have happened quicker,” he acknowledges. “We wanted to ensure that the employees knew where we stood on the matter, but we waited a little long.”

Nonetheless, the prospect of making mistakes should not deter credit unions from moving forward in committing to DEI. “Recognize you’ll make some mistakes and give yourself some grace,” Disterhoft advises. “We’ve made our share of mistakes in this process—and will continue to have stumbles along the way—but those mistakes are always indicative of our learning and growth. … To implement a successful DEI strategy, leaders need to feel comfortable enough to acknowledge what they don’t know and be eager to learn.”  cues icon 

Based in Missouri, Diane Franklin is a longtime contributor to CU Management magazine. 

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