World Credit Union Conference: the good and the bad

I just returned from the 2007 World Credit Union Conference presented by the World Council of Credit Unions (WOCCU) held in Calgary, Alberta from July 28 to August 1. I was there with two hats: credit union advocate and Cuckoo exhibitor.

In 2006, the conference was held in Ireland and in 2005, it was held in Italy, so with such a significant conference being held only an hour-by-plane away, this was an opportunity that I couldn't let go by to promote our new stock campaign offering to attendees from more than 60 countries.

On the self-promotional front, it was a great success and worth the time and expense. In our 10' x 10' stall, we set up a "get your picture taken as a Canadian Mountie" conversation piece. Here's three of the best photos and a link to all of the photos that we posted on Flickr.

Transient
Transient
Transient

Now for my unofficial review of the conference. Rather than going into a really long description, I will give you a few good points and a few bad points.

The good

  • The work being down in third-world countries. During the opening keynote, we were treated to a live Skype hook-up with the WOCCU project team in Afghanistan. The staff of the seven new credit unions talked to us about the challenges with security, communications and transportation. Amongst roadside bombings and kidnappings, the team unanimously proclaimed that "We will make this happen." These brave men and women are bringing the credit union movement to one of the most war-torn areas of the world. Imagine being fitted with body armor on your first day at work!
  • Expansion into new regions. There are grand plans to ramp up the credit union movement in Brazil, Russia, India and China. These countries represent enormous opportunities with their large populations and fast-growing economies. WOCCU representativs are working with governments and people on the ground to establish an environment where credit unions can flourish worldwide.
  • Bill Gates is supporting the movement. Over half the world’s population—3 billion people—live on less than one dollar a day. Few of these individuals have ready access to formal savings and credit services. Through a $8.7 million donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, WOCCU will be working to strengthen credit unions in Ecuador, the Philippines and Mexico.
  • This really feels like a worldwide movement. It was great to see the real-world impact that credit unions are having worldwide. I have never been to a mega-bank conference, but I have a hunch that it wouldn't feel as warm and cuddly.

The bad

  • The speakers. For the most part, the speakers at the conference where credit union employees speaking about their own experiences and situations. Although these folks were passionate credit union advocates, they were not professional speakers by any stretch of the imagination. A 90-minute break-out session with 100-word Powerpoint slides and head-down note reading is hard to take over and over again. There were exceptions—like the two amazing keynote speakers, Stephen Lewis and Michael Treacy—but these exceptions were few and far between.
  • The size. With more than 2,500 attendees, this is by far the largest conference that I've attended and it was simply too big. Random meetings at lunch and on the trade show floor where superficial at best. With so many people, it is extremely difficult to feel connected.
  • Too much blue hair. At 38, I'm no longer a spring chicken, however at this conference I was at least 15 years younger than the average attendee. With sessions like "Reaching the 18–34 Member Market" painting an unrealistic caricature of today's youth, it's no wonder that our aging credit union leaders are out of touch with who's coming next.
  • Today's North American Bank Juniors seem to have lost touch with the movement's cooperative principles. In very broad strokes (and there are definite exceptions), it seems like American and Canadian credit unions are extremely focussed on profitability, systemization, amalgamation and keeping up with the banks. Whereas, credit unions in other parts of the world seem to be focussed on serving their members and building stronger communities. I may be naive, but I believe that somewhere right in the middle is where all credit unions need to be.
  • It seemed a bit excessive. I am not against making a profit—I am a business-owner in a for-profit business! I estimate that the cost of this event, with all the sponsors, attendees and travel, topped $10 million. I don't think it delivered that kind of value. 

My blog posts about my feelings on the credit union movement are beginning to feel a little like a broken record. I know my views maybe a little too altruistic, but I honestly believe in the credit union movement and I am not just out to slag others' very hard work. Putting on a conference of this size is an enormous undertaking and the folks at WOCCU and Credit Union Central of Canada did an outstanding job of pulling it off. Now will I go to Hong Kong next year? It's hard to say at this point.

Tim