Credit Unions

For Highly Mobile Members, UNFCU Thinks Globally

For United Nations staffers stationed far and wide, transmitting funds to family or paying bills cross-border is a common challenge. These scenarios might throw traditional banks for a loop, but they’re among the bread and butter of the United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU). In the latest Credit Union Tracker, UNFCU VPs Jim Fenimore and Bill Thomas discuss how the credit union tailors cross-border remittances to its 128,000 members based in 193 countries.

Highly mobile workers who frequently move between international borders often feel like they’re in a financial labyrinth. Take, for example,the 44,000 employees who currently work for the United Nations. According to the U.N.’s website, 60 percent of those employees serve in field-based positions in 193 countries.

Monitoring personal finances internationally can be challenging. U.N. staff must make payments in local currencies and comply with their host countries’ financial regulations. Jim Fenimore, senior vice president of operations at the United Nations Federal Credit Union (UNFCU), said that people who face these conditions, need to send money internationally or look to purchase property abroad are better served by FIs that understand the unique nature of their work.

“UNFCU knows the United Nations community and knows the U.N. members better than any [other] financial institution,” Fenimore said. “As these staff members and their families are transferred from duty station to duty station, we are often that one constant in their lives.”

UNFCU holds approximately $5.3 billion in assets and serves 128,000 members around the globe, including current U.N. staffers, retirees and family members. UNFCR members also work for U.N. agencies, including UNICEF and UNHCR.

Fenimore and Bill Thomas, UNFCU’s first vice president of member operations, recently spoke with PYMNTS about the financial difficulties U.N. staffers often face and why a credit union, rather than a bank, is best suited to address these challenges.

Mobile Payment Tools For A Mobile Workforce

Travel is just part of the job for U.N. staff, as they’re typically required to transition to new duty stations every three years.

“They are very mobile,” Fenimore said. “Our products have to be equally mobile.”

UNFCU communicates with its members to get a sense of their financial challenges and uses these insights to develop tools that manage their financial lives and are suited to their needs. As a result of this research, UNFCU implemented EMV-ready payment cards. Europe implemented EMV payment terminals more than 20 years ago, making it challenging for UNFCU members to use their non-EMV-compliant credit cards. They struggled to pay for services at unmanned stations such as parking, travel tickets or even renting bicycles.

After gauging the demand, UNFCU connected with the necessary partners to offer members EMV-enabled cards in 2010. The effort marked a historic occasion, not just for UNFCU, but also for U.S. credit unions and banks.

“The nature of our membership propelled us … to become the first financial institution in the U.S. to issue a consumer-based chip-PIN credit card,” Fenimore said.

Easing International Business

EMV cards are just one of the services UNFCU has launched in response to members’ needs. The CU also offers an international home loan program to help members purchase properties overseas, as well as an online banking platform enabling members to maintain foreign accounts and transfer funds to locations across the world. This allows members overseas to easily access local currency and conduct business.

UNFCU recently launched a new online payment system in Kenya that allows consumers to move funds from UNFCU accounts to M-Pesa accounts. The credit union also added Uganda shillings to the list of currencies members can transfer.

In addition, UNFCU has rolled out a worldwide rebate program based on feedback from its Panama-based members. Its debit card holders can receive annual rebates of up to $120 to cover surcharge or foreign transaction fees incurred by withdrawing cash from foreign ATMs.

“We listen to our members, [and] talk to them to find out what their needs are and what steps we need to take to move the needle,” Thomas said.

The need to easily move money across borders is a common demand among U.N. staff. While the employees themselves may be based in one country, many have family in another, who also need to access funds.

“We find the greatest needs of our members is to transfer [between] accounts,” Thomas said. “If there’s a U.N. employee working in Afghanistan, but his family is home in India, he’s able to transfer funds back there to pay for electricity, the mortgage or the rent.”

UNFCU’s facilitation of these arrangements may put the credit union in a better position than a traditional bank to deliver such financial services.

“Not every financial institution [has] that insight into their members,” he said. “Because we see it as a pattern and as a need, we want to make sure we are able to facilitate it.”

An Aligned Mission

Fenimore echoed the sentiment Thomas expressed, saying UNFCU’s level of familiarity with the U.N. puts it in a unique position to address the financial needs of a global and mobile workforce. Understanding what U.N. employees consider challenges is a valuable asset, especially given the chaotic nature of world events and the rapidly changing financial services landscape. Fenimore wants U.N. workers to feel they have a reliable partner, and a benefit in that endeavor is UNFCU’s mission, which is very closely aligned with that of the U.N.

“We’re a not-for-profit cooperative,” Thomas said. “I think [it] resonates with our [members] to know that when they make their deposits here, [they’re] helping their co-worker — their colleague gets that home mortgage or that credit card.”

UNFCU’s closeness to the organization it serves makes it uniquely suited to address U.N. employees’ needs. Having an FI that is deeply familiar with the unusual routines of its members could make the task of navigating the financial labyrinth that much easier.

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