From humble beginnings with initial capital of $77 earned from a bake sale to the $5 billion organization it is today, Self-Help Credit Union has provided a hand to those in need since 1980. Triangle Community Foundation greatly values our partnership with Self-Help, and sat down with Crystal German and Tucker Bartlett, both Self-Help Executive Vice Presidents, and current and former Board members, respectively, at the Foundation.

Serving a Need

A group of like-minded folks, led by Martin Eakes and Bonnie Wright, founded Self-Help during a recession when many factories in North Carolina were closing and moving abroad. Wanting to help the mostly small, rural towns affected by this exodus, Martin and Bonnie had the idea of a cooperatively owned entity that could help factory workers purchase their factories.

The Center for Community Self Help was born, based on the idea that communities don't need saviors, but rather a helping hand. They quickly realized that capital was the main issue, as it's not just about the will to have a factory, but also the need for money to invest in equipment, etc.

“The business model changed to basically a cooperatively owned financial institution where the members, the depositors themselves, are the shareholders in that financial institution,” says Tucker. That $77 earned from the bake sale was indeed the first deposit into what became Self-Help Credit Union, and since that day, our mission has focused on ownership and economic opportunity for all.

When asked about the organization’s biggest strengths, Tucker shares, “I can best summarize it through our theory of change, which is listen, serve, innovate, replicate and advocate. Listening involves community engagement, and Self-Help now has over 75 branches spread out across the country where we directly connect with community members, learning about the issues.”

Tucker explains, “Serving is being a financial institution versus a think tank. We try to affect change by doing - by participating in the financial process, whether that’s offering fair and transparent deposit services, so you have a place to save money and have a checking account or providing a financial education. We provide service through concrete transactions that engage with the community."

“Innovate is trying out different ideas,” Tucker continues. “We see our network as a sandbox for innovation, a laboratory to test out different approaches that might work on the front lines. And if those ideas work, then we go to replicate, which is working with other financial institutions across the country to share what we have learned, what does well and how to participate in that replication.”

“A good example of that is our home lending,” Tucker adds. “We tested different products for years, figuring out what works for low-wealth families, rolling out a series of products and then partnering with traditional banks to say, ‘If you offer that same loan, we will buy the loan from you. We'll take the risk and sell it on into the secondary markets of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.’ While we might be big in the world of nonprofit financial institutions at $5 billion, in the world of for-profit financial institutions, we are tiny, so if we're going to really affect change, we’ve got to participate with traditional financial institutions, and that's what we do through this replication strategy.”

“The last part of our theory of change is advocate, and that is based on the idea that all of the earlier steps of listening, serving, innovating, and replicating allow us to advocate for policy change, whether in the halls of Congress having laws change that push back against predatory lending practices, or lifting up best practices that we've learned to try to affect Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac or other lenders with the type of lending we know works,” Tucker concludes.  “To summarize, Self-Help tries to connect Main Street to Wall Street to Pennsylvania Avenue - doing the lending in the communities, taking the model to the bigger financial institutions and financial markets, and advocating for change from a public policy standpoint.”

Crystal particularly appreciates the fact that Self-Help lives out its mission both inside and outside of its walls.  "Women and people of color are integral parts of our mission," she observes. "Over 70 percent of our workforce are women, and over 60 percent are people of color. Over 40 percent are here in North Carolina, so we feel like we are actively contributing to the livelihood of the same people inside our walls that we're serving with our mission outside of the walls. We are listening to our members, but also to our employees. They are one of the best resources we have to tell us what work needs to be done in the communities in this state and then around the country.”

Crystal credits Self Help’s small size (in relation to financial institutions like Bank of America and Wells Fargo) with its ability to be nimble and innovate. “Our goal is to model the way we think financial institutions can be responsible in their activities,” she says. “Do it first and then show other larger financial institutions how we've done it for them to follow suit. We've seen it in some of the reforms we have had around fees. We've seen the industry follow us or get in line with what we've been doing, showing the way when it comes to responsible financial services.”

“The ironic thing,” Tucker adds, “is that we are constantly putting ourselves ‘out of business.’ The larger financial institutions don’t want to take the initial risk, but they’re ok standing by and letting us take it. Then when they realize the risk is not high or it’s a good enough market to take the risk, they replace us. But that is what we are here for. We see the major financial players as partners. A good example of this is downtown Durham's renaissance. In the early 2000s no major financial institution was lending downtown. Self-Help was the only one lending to American Tobacco and to Golden Belt and a lot of the early projects, but behind Self-Help were financial institutions lending to us. So, they were participating, but just in a one-step-removed and financially protected way. As you know, downtown Durham took off and now Self-Help does very little lending there anymore. All the big banks want to do it themselves.”

Finding the Right Partners

Self-Help partners with a diverse group of organizations to achieve the highest impact.

“We partner with community-based organizations, advocacy organizations, grass tops and grass roots organizations – folks doing everything from walking the halls of Congress or walking the halls of our state legislature to folks who are at nonprofits that have the respect and the ear of a particular neighborhood,” Tucker states. “We look for organizations that are mission-aligned, share similar values, and have integrity and credibility in the work they're doing. We also actively look for organizations led by people of color, led by women, and are indicative of the communities we're trying to serve. We want to have as many folks in the fight as we can and who are doing the work that we're doing.”

Tucker points to the Marian Cheek Jackson Center (a grantee of the Foundation and also profiled in our 40 stories initiative) as a perfect example of a successful partnership.

“The Jackson Center is rooted in a community that is a neighborhood or two,” Tucker says “They walk door to door, sit on front porches with members of the community and build tight relationships and gain incredible knowledge about what's going on in their neighborhoods. Self-Help does community engagement, but not at the granular level in one neighborhood in one town in North Carolina. The Jackson Center does the work and then partners with us and informs us what exactly it is they need. In Jackson Center’s case that is what's called a land bank - someone to come in and help purchase houses, renovate those houses, and sell them to members of the community to bring back what had been a strong African American neighborhood but had become a student rental neighborhood. It’s the combination of Jackson Center’s knowledge plus Self-Help’s expertise in real estate and raising capital that can make that effective. If it weren't for Jackson Center, we wouldn't know what to do in that neighborhood and could maybe do more harm than good.”

Self-Help also works with a lot of philanthropic partners. “They are usually our first dollars in and the ones saying, ‘we believe in the work that you're doing and we're willing to take the lion's share of the risk to see this get off the ground,’” says Crystal. “We couldn't do the work without having that position which then allows us to have the conversations with the financial institutions and take our own risk.”

A common way philanthropic dollars get partnered into a community is through what’s called a program-related investment (PRI), a mission-based investment that donors make to organizations like Self-Help to achieve their philanthropic goals. PRIs are similar to grants, making inexpensive capital available to organizations addressing social or environmental issues, and have been a huge tool for Self-Help’s growth, says Tucker. “Maybe our largest grant ever was a $50 million grant from the Ford Foundation, which created the risk capital, the risk pool, to launch a $5 billion home ownership program. PRIs have been the lifeblood for our credit union growth.”

Issues Facing the Region

Affordable housing is one of the most challenging issues facing the area right now. “There's just a number of things, a number of economic factors that are making home ownership and even home renting more expensive and seemingly out of reach for many folks in the Triangle and in all the communities we serve,” says Crystal. “We’ve been working on affordable housing loan funds and also have recently constructed Willard Street Apartments, in 2021. We also just broke ground on Hardee Street in Durham as well.

Tucker points to the lack of access to financial institutions in lower income communities as another issue. “You see banks shutting down their branches and more banks expanding online. We're a little retro in that we are adding more bank branches - we're building one in southeast Raleigh right now.”

Crystal agrees that “the challenge of providing access to capital resources, relationships to help grow businesses owned by people of color is ongoing. Businesses in low-wealth communities tend to start out under-capitalized, built off friends, family, and credit cards. We actively try and provide affordable capital for small businesses and is something that's been on our business plan blueprint from the beginning.”

Partnering with Triangle Community Foundation

Both Tucker and Crystal have had the opportunity to see behind the curtain at the Foundation while serving as committee and Board members. When asked his thoughts on the Foundation, Tucker said, “The Foundation has grown to about $300 million in assets, with much of that through rapid growth in the last 10 years. You’re growing financially stronger and like Self-Help have fiduciary responsibility to your fundholders, and there's always that tension between fiduciary responsibility and driving your mission. I would challenge the Foundation to be a little bolder. We know Fidelity can run a donor-advised fund, but the Foundation can run a donor-advised fund AND knows the community as well. So, I’d say be bold, even when you're bumping up against something that might upset some donors. If you think it's the vision of what the community needs and y'all believe in it, step into that space. You're big enough now that you're going to ruffle some feathers here and there, but in the name of overall prosperity for our community. I would say be bold but do so with respect. Our enemies on one fight might be our allies on the next.”

“We have seen boldness work, and so we believe there is a way to do the work and do it with integrity and responsiveness and care,” agrees Crystal. “And do it without trepidation, because you know it is the work that needs to be done. Admittedly, we may have a biased view of what bold gets you when you start out at $77 and are now at $5 billion.”