Community Development Credit Unions: Securing and Protecting Assets in Black Communities


Credit Unions, with a hundred year history, and Community Development Credit Unions (CDCUs), with a 30–40 year history of serving the under-served, have only recently begun to be recognized by some of the media and the progressive community as “safe havens” and fair lenders. There is little independent, academic research, however, that investigates and evaluates the ways that credit unions are community-rooted and responsive to local needs, and/or their achievements in this area. This paper reports on preliminary qualitative research this author has conducted to help us understand how community development credit unions in Black communities in the U.S. provide affordable financial services, and especially help their clients/members to preserve assets. Major findings include: all CDCUs note that they charge lower rates for their products, and provide higher interest or dividends when possible; both which enable members/customers to save money and build assets. CDCUs work closely with their members to personalize services, to help them avoid loans they cannot afford, and to educate them enough to make sound financial decisions and preserve their assets. Many give some direct options to their members to avoid “payday loans” with check cashing and other predatory lenders. In addition, most CDCUs are deeply involved in their communities, and the bigger ones actually provide donations, encourage their employees to volunteer in the community and are generous employees (creating jobs with benefits and job ladder opportunities). Some are able to help finance affordable housing and contribute to other community economic development projects.

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  1. 1.

    For more on asset stripping see Adamson 2003; Gordon Nembhard and Chiteji 2006; Henson et al. 2005; Darity and Nicholson 2005; Winbush 2003, and Browne 1973.

  2. 2.

    See Oliver and Shapiro 2006, for example, on the importance of using qualitative data to understand differing experiences with wealth accumulation and effects of wealth policy.

  3. 3.

    They produce reports which provide some evidence of this (to be discussed below).

  4. 4.

    According to Cerise (No Date, slide 3), among the principles guiding credit unions are: loans are made for “prudent and productive” purposes; a person’s desire to repay (character) is considered as important as the ability (income) to repay.

  5. 5.

    Morrison 2008, quotes NFCDCU Executive Director Cliff Rosenthal.

  6. 6.

    These questions were revised and expanded with Lou Hammond Ketilson, and with assistance from Dwayne Patterson, at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, from 2009 to 2010.

  7. 7.

    At the University of Southern New Hampshire I worked with Chris Clamp’s graduate research class in the fall of 2009.

  8. 8.

    Charlotte Otabor a graduate student at Howard University’s Center on Race and Wealth.

  9. 9.

    On the other hand, however, many of the credit unions do not provide any kind of payday lending because they have found it does not help their members in the long term, but rather ties them up in more debt; and it is not prudent for lender or borrower to lend “with no questions asked.”

  10. 10.

    The National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions began to offer a special grant program and training seminar to promote the development and expansion of affordable anti-predatory lending programs to its members.

  11. 11.

    For example, the Canadian Credit Union Central 2009 study.

  12. 12.

    Mandela Foods Cooperative in Oakland California is establishing such a program with its neighbor People’s Federal Credit Union, and plans to make donations to the IDA program from its profits. Mandela Foods Cooperative brochure (No Date) describes this program. Also the author discussed this initiative and its potential during interviews with employee-owners during site visits at Mandela Foods Cooperative (2009-2010 respectively) and with a Manager at People’s Federal Credit Union during the August 2010 site visit.


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Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jessica Gordon Nembhard.

Additional information

With assistance from Charlotte Otabor (graduate student, Department of Economics, Howard University). Thanks to generous support from Howard’s Center on Race and Wealth (Ford Foundation grant), and also faculty research support from the Provost’s Office of John Jay College, CUNY, and support from the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, University of Saskatchewan, Canada (SHIRC and CURA grants). Thanks to Christelle Essaga at John Jay, Dwayne Patterson at the Centre for the Study of Co-operatives, and Torrence Simon at Howard University for additional research assistance over the past years. The author’s interview questions were also piloted (and additional research contributed) by students participating in the doctoral qualitative research course at Southern New Hampshire University’s School of Community Economic Development, under Dr. Christina Clamp in the fall semester 2009. Many thanks to all the credit unions, their managers, directors, and members who agreed to talk with us.



Credit Union Statistics

Table 1 Credit union statistics (as of September 2012)
Table 2 Community development credit unions in NFCDCU overview

Comparisons Credit Unions and Commercial Banks

Table 3 Interest bearing accounts interest rate averages as of December 8, 2011
Table 4 Interest rates on loans as of December 8, 2011

Comparisons Credit Unions and Commercial Banks

Table 5 Total loan delinquencies as a percent of loans outstanding–annual averages 4 years
Table 6 Growth since beginning of recession: Sept 2007–September 2011

Community Development Credit Unions Studied

Table 7 Summary information on 5 community development credit unions Interviewed 2010
Table 8 Federation of southern cooperatives/land assistance fund credit unions members, assets, savings, loans 2000–2011 (every 2 years)

Community Development Credit Union Sample Questions for Managers (derived from previous research–in Gordon Nembhard 2004a, 2008b; and Gordon Nembhard et al. 2012)

  1. A.

    General Information

    1. A1.

      Please provide background information and statistics about your CDCU, public financial information (from annual reports, website and brochures, etc.).

    2. A2.

      Please name and describe the kind of charter or “bond” that your community development credit union is organized under. What domain must your members come from–what specific characteristics or geographic boundaries.

    3. A3.

      Please describe the demographics of your members–such as % low-income, African American, Latino, women -; and the community where your main office and branch are located.

    4. A4.

      Number of employees, full time, part time. Are the wages and salaries competitive, living wages, with benefits packages (health insurance, vacation and sick leave, retirement plans)?

    5. A5.

      Types range of jobs? Are there job ladder opportunities? Does the community development credit union hire local residents?

  2. B.

    General Observations of Community development credit union Benefits and Impacts

    1. B1.

      What kind of presence does this community development credit union have in the neighborhood surrounding it? Sponsor sports teams, parades, give donations, supply loans for community development, etc.?

    2. B2.

      What do you think are the most important services your CDCU provides to its members? To employees? To the community?

    3. B3.

      What kinds of products and services does your CDCU offer to its members? What products and services to non members? How do they differ from what a commercial bank offers?

    4. B4.

      List all the benefits members of your CDCU receive {if need a prompt ask direct deposit; financial counseling, financial planning or financial literacy; mortgage counseling, home or auto ownership training; estate planning; services targeted for women; youth and student services; disability services; free tax preparation; foreign language and immigrant services; micro-lending program, peer lending}

    5. B6.

      Does your CDCU give out dividends to members? How often (frequency) and how much (size). Do staff receive bonuses (how often, how much)?

  3. C.

    Savings Accounts, Investments and Loans

    1. C1.

      Do you think the savings and investment products your community development credit union offers help your members to save more or to acquire/build assets? {prompt: explain what an asset is–it is money or an investment that you have saved for the future and that increases in value over time–a house, CD account, retirement account, savings bond, stock, business equity, real estate, even a car}

    2. C2.

      What kinds of loans does your CDCU offer its members? Please describe each type. Do you have restrictions on loans for small business ownership and/or commercial development?

    3. C3.

      Do you know how your members use their loans? Discuss what your members have told you about the usefulness of the loans and what they do with their loans.

    4. C4.

      How do your loans differ from a loan from a commercial bank? Please explain any differences in the treatment, terms and uses of the loans between the commercial bank loan and the CDCU loan you received.

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Gordon Nembhard, J. Community Development Credit Unions: Securing and Protecting Assets in Black Communities. Rev Black Polit Econ 40, 459–490 (2013).

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  • Credit unions
  • Community development credit unions
  • Predatory lending
  • Subprime loans
  • Asset building
  • Low-income borrowers
  • Cooperatives
  • Community benefits
  • Financial Literacy
  • Alternative financial institutions
  • Community development financial institutions