Bringing Branch Services to Tiny Villages
Meet One of the CRM Next Right on the Money Contest Winners
Tongass Federal Credit Union (TFCU), a credit union with just over 9,000 members and $135-million in assets, has grown exponentially in recent years thanks to community microsites that serve villages and regions with fewer than 1,000 residents.
When looking at new branch locations, most financial institutions wouldn’t even consider a small town or village with less than 1,000 residents. But that’s just what TFCU (Tongass Federal Credit Union) did. And it’s that kind of outside-the-box thinking that earned them a top spot in the CRM Next Right on the Money Contest for personalized banking and taking the member journey to the next level. We had the chance to meet with the credit union’s CEO and get an idea of why and how the credit union started building what they call community microsites.
Where is TFCU located?
Corporate offices for the $135-million credit union can be found on Tongass Avenue in Ketchikan, Alaska. You’ll find it on Revillagigedo Island (one of the largest islands in the U.S.). If you look on a map, you’ll find it in the group of islands that run adjacent to Canada. This is also known as the Inside Passage.
However, while you can find it on a map, it’s a bit more difficult to visit. Every town and community in this region is remote, only accessible by plane or boat. And just in case you forget how incredibly vast Alaska is, Ketchikan is closer to Seattle than it is to Anchorage (one of the most populated cities in the state).
That vastness and inaccessibility are what led Helen Mickel, TFCU President/CEO, and her team to develop community microsites and other innovative ways of bringing financial services to the underserved.
At TFCU, their priority is to the growth and prosperity of the community. They believe that financial institutions are a pillar of a community, and when they come into underserved regions, it is their chance to bring education, opportunity and financial access. Currently, it has regular branches and ATMs located in towns ranging from 8,000 to 14,000 people, as well as community microsites in small villages, including Thorne Bay, Hydaburg, Kake, and Hoonah.
“Hydaburg is sponsored by the school, Kake is sponsored by the Kake Tribal Corporation, and Hoonah is sponsored by Hoonah Indian Association,” Mickel said when asked about the location of their current community microsites.
She explained that because there are no roads connecting these tiny communities, it can be difficult to impossible for residents to get the financial services they want and need.
“The first one was run by volunteers out of a sporting goods store in a resident’s basement,” she recalled with a smile. “We put the money in a gun safe and did transactions on paper.”
Those transactions then traveled by floatplane. For over a decade no other micro-sites were opened. Then in 2019, the credit union found more free space and demand from small communities.
“The same thing happened again and again,” Mickel said. “We’d get free space and assistance from the local native corporation.”
In quick succession, the current sites were open, running, and helping residents improve their financial lives.
“In Hoonah, they put us into an old canoe shed that they had remodeled. It’s our Alaska Native connections and sponsors who understand how important financial services are for a small community. They are there for us, and we are there for them.”
The credit union has moved out of the basement of their first community microsite into a small space inside the local city office building.
“All we pay are the utilities. Right now, we have a new microsite in the works in Yakutat. We are working with the local tribal corporation who is building a cabin for us to provide local services.”
In addition to ATM and branch locations, the credit union also offers online and mobile banking, as well as phone and online chat interactions. Whatever it takes to connect people with their finances.
“We have in-school financial education, special savings accounts for youth, volunteer tax assistance, a credit-building loan, and space set up to help local artists and business owners,” she added with pride. “We were the first in some areas to offer small business loans with better rates, terms and service to local entrepreneurs.”
TFCU has remodeled a former rental space to create The Commons at TFCU. At The Commons, TFCU has teamed up with a local non-profit to do a community garden outside the back door. TFCU also sponsors periodic popup shops in the winter as well as farmers’ markets in the summer.
At The Commons, businesses can meet, connect, and work remotely while enjoying coffee or food from Pilothouse Coffee, a new on-site business the credit union sponsors to provide refreshments. The Commons gallery features a new artist every quarter where the featured artisan can sell their wares.
But this credit union innovator and her team aren’t resting on their laurels. They’re hoping to further help communities throughout the region by partnering with the U.S. Postal Service through a Contract Postal Unit (CPU). The idea is that the credit union could more efficiently run local mail services while also providing robust financial services in microsite communities. Read more about this innovation here.
Right on the Money 2022 Announced Soon
The third-annual Right on the Money Content will get underway soon. Start thinking about who or what credit union you would like to nominate. Winners, like TFCU, will be those who find new ways of serving the underserved, bettering the lives of their members and employees, and accept the role of financial superhero in the face of adversity. More information coming soon.