Think. Do. Change.
The slogan for Madison, Wisconsin’s Filene Research Institute is an appropriate one. A think tank and non-profit rolled into one, Filene’s 28 employees, contractors, and interns have come together for one singular mission – to make an impact in the credit union industry.
“We are a ‘Think and Do’ tank,” says Tiffany Niederwerfer, Filene’s communications manager. “The ‘Do’ is pretty important because a big part of our mission is helping credit unions discover ways to put our research into action.”
When it comes to research, the folks at Filene don’t mess around. Ben Rogers, managing director, research, says that there can be anywhere from 15 to 35 research projects taking place simultaneously. Through research, testing, and implementing change, the non-profit currently serves more than 2,000 members in the United States, Canada, and beyond.
Niederwerfer explains, “We are a membership organization, and through the credit unions’ memberships, they have access to all of our research reports, they get discounts on programs and services, and invitations to events. But also, because of our non-profit charter, we make those findings available to a much wider set, because of our role in service and education.”
“If we see things that need to be changed, we want to showcase that, because we are doing this on behalf of credit unions” – Andrew Downin
Many of these research reports are available on Filene’s website. Recent reports have included “Financial Soundness of Canadian Credit Unions” and “Cybersecurity: Credit Unions in the Crosshairs.” Members also have the opportunity to request a custom research program to meet their specific needs.
The future of consumer finance
New this year, Filene has developed its Centers of Excellence, in which each research area focuses on “topics that are important to the future of consumer finance,” says Niederwerfer. The centers are rolling out at various times — two, including Consumer Decision Making, and Organizational Entrepreneurship, have already been launched, with three more waiting in the wings. Look for Performance and Operational Excellence, Emerging Technology, and War for Talent later this year.
Rogers and his staff genuinely enjoy the research process. He says, “The most fun part is figuring out what the most important issues are for credit unions going forward, and go out and find a way to answer those questions. That’s a lot of fun.” The identified issues run the gamut, from building products for Gen-Y members to reaching minority households through financial empowerment.
An impact on minority households
Reaching Minority Households, an initiative supported by Visa, is looking for ways to have an impact on minority households, specifically black and Hispanic populations. Filene is in the midst researching and testing this issue.
“[A] big part of our mission is helping credit unions discover ways to put our research into action” – Tiffany Niederwerfer
Andrew Downin, managing director, innovation, says, “With the Minority Households initiative, we’ve identified five products that credit unions are currently having some level of localized success at meeting the needs of minority households. We are testing them across the United States and Canada with upwards of 10 credit unions to understand what is the impact and how easy is it for credit unions to launch these products.”
He adds, “Credit unions are always interested in social outcomes and positive ways of helping the community.”
Academia and innovation
Filene often works with experts in the academic, business, and technology spheres to boost and perfect its research. For example, Filene works with Dennis Campbell, a business professor at Harvard University. “Somewhere along the way, he caught the credit union bug,” says Rogers. “It’s good for our members because they can get access to the kind of thinking that you get at Harvard Business School.”
In addition to research, Filene counts testing as an equally important aspect of its work. One component of this testing is called i3, a collaborative innovation lab in which the best and the brightest thinkers and doers around the credit union movement come together to discover new, groundbreaking techniques and practices. (Read more about i3 in “Bright idea central,” Enterprise, September 2015.)
“We want every idea to succeed,” says Downin. “If we see things that need to be changed, we want to showcase that, because we are doing this on behalf of credit unions. Our credit unions can make their own decisions whether they want to move forward with it or not. We need to be able to apply that research in a way that’s going to lead to positive change and impact.”
From idea to action
Filene also tests concepts in what it calls its “Incubator.” “The Incubator is where we test ideas for scalability and sustainability,” says Niederwerfer.
Once an idea has gone through the research and testing process, it is shared with the credit union masses.
Although serious work goes on at Filene, the culture is “fun,” according to Rogers.
He says, “Everybody here cares about the work that we’re doing. Our engagement level is very high. We get to identify the issues, work on them and then go out into the field and help credit unions practice them. This is a mission-driven place.”
Rogers simplifies Filene’s mission, saying, “Because Filene did its job, we helped credit unions do their job and the American public is better off.” ◊
- Name: Filene Research Institute
- Mission: Through independent research and analysis, explore issues vital to the future of credit unions and consumer finance.
- HQ: Madison, Wisconsin
- Est.: 1989
- Staff: 28 employees, interns, and contractors
- Members: 2,009