British professionals visit Romanian credit unions to share insights

Visitors explored the similarities between the two movements during the Erasmus-sponsored learning week

Credit union practitioners from England and Scotland have taken part in a learning week with Romanian counterparts in Bucharest.

The project involved staff and board directors from 14 credit unions, the Association of British Credit Unions (Abcul) and Liverpool John Moores University, who attended classroom sessions on governance and financial education and visited 10 credit unions across the country.

Delegates explored the different approach of Romanian credit unions, known as mutual assistance houses (CARs), which lend a considerably greater proportion of their funds than those in Britain. This is possible due to a trusted guarantor system, under which borrowers have to identify one or two other people to guarantee the loan.

The system allows low risk and low interest rates, enabling CARs to be commercially successful despite operating with often smaller memberships than in Britain.

Tom Waterhouse, a director at NHS Credit Union, said: “The professionalism and helpfulness of the staff from top to bottom was unstinting, the CARs showed a reach into their communities that some of us in the UK credit union movement can only dream of.

“The CARs also showed a range and sophistication from the very traditional to the very advanced that surprised and impressed in equal measure.”

Chris Smith, a director at Co-op Credit Union,  said he was impressed with the commitment of the CARs to remain engaged with their communities, and the fact that that the bottom line is measured in other ways than just interest and dividend.

British visitors learned about the work of CARP Omenia, a credit union whose members are pensioners – many of whom must survive on low state pensions. To help, the CAR offers other services such as a GP surgery, a day centre and home visits, and also acquires food products for members, which are then sold to them at the same price, with the CAR covering the cost of distribution and storage.

David Harris, marketing manager at Pennine Community Credit Union, said: “It was interesting to see similarities with the UK credit union movement, while being introduced to policy and procedures that could improve the service we provide to members. The hospitality shown by our host was amazing.”

This event followed a Romanian visit to Liverpool in June 2018, and a week in Trento in Italy for British and Romanians in October. This educational programme is sponsored by the EU’s Erasmus+ initiative, which involves partners from the UK, Italy and Romania.

Related: UK and Romanian credit unions share knowledge

Dan Arrowsmith, policy officer at Abcul, said: “Our hosts in Italy and Romania have been extremely generous in allowing our credit unions to examine their methods of operation and the reasons behind their success.

“Learning from our international colleagues in this way has been so valuable for a British credit union sector which is still growing and developing its services to members.”

David Batten, CEO at Hoot Credit Union in Bolton, added: “The trip afforded a valuable opportunity to reflect on current practice as well as providing ideas for the development of services at home.

“I was struck by the fact that although our movements have very different histories the issues we face are very similar. Romanian credit unions have very strong connections with their communities which is something that the UK movement would do well to develop.”