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Random thoughts on a rainy Friday…

If my visits to NFCA members have taught me anything, it’s that diversity of the fraternal system is our greatest attribute – and a compelling reason to ensure the survival of as many societies as possible in an age of consolidation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a big advocate of fraternal mergers; especially ones done for strategic rather than survival reasons.  But if we merge ourselves down to a system of only a dozen players, then we risk losing some of those unique niches that distinguish us from other commercial insurers and charitable organizations. 

Filling Unique Niches

For instance, over the past couple of weeks I’ve had the opportunity to meet with executives of the Polish National Union of America (PNU) in Scranton, PA, and Employes’ Mutual Benefit Association (EMBA) in Milwaukee, WI.  PNU serves a unique market through its affiliation with the Polish National Catholic Church – a separate and distinct organization from the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t know that another Catholic church – headquartered in Scranton, no less – even existed.  Just goes to show that you DO learn something new every day.  And PNU’s vivacious president, Irene Jugan, is one of the finest advocates for the value of the fraternal system on the face of the planet.

EMBA is an occupation-based fraternal whose members are the employees of Wisconsin Electric, a publicly-traded utility.  The society provides short-term disability coverage to about one-third of WE employees and, working with other Wisconsin-based member societies and the state fraternal congress, EMBA Secretary Elaine Nap is actively engaged in JOIN HANDS DAY activities and the annual “Day on the Hill” event, which brings together fraternal executives and state public policymakers in Madison, WI, each spring.

The Cooperative Concept Lives

Ensuring the long term health and viability of these and other small and mid-sized fraternals is very important to the leadership of NFCA.  While we can’t supply capital, ensure the relevance of fraternal activities and insurance products, or build an effective sales force for any member society, the association can assist by helping members drive down costs, increase efficiency, and create new business and community service opportunities.

That’s exactly what we’re trying to accomplish with our “cooperative shared-services” initiative.  We’ve taken some big steps since first discussing this effort at the Presidents Section meeting earlier this year.  Members are making progress toward forming a cooperative to address compliance issues and offer retail banking services through fraternal-owned banks.  We’re also studying ways to use our collective purchasing power to reduce costs for office supplies and other items each of us purchases every day.  And earlier this week, we unveiled our first group-buying discount program for laboratory services through Heritage Labs.  We also recently signed another partnership with ReadyTalk – provider of our popular educational webinars – that offers NFCA members competitive pricing on both teleconference and Web event rates.  When we compared their offer with our previous teleconference provider, we quickly switched providers for all of our internal and external conference calls.

We’ll be providing you a much more detailed update on what we’ve accomplished to date and where we’re headed in the year at the NFCA Annual Meeting in San Antonio next month.  I hope you’ll be an active participant in that discussion.

Is There Room for More Fraternals?

I know the hurdles are huge, but I’m convinced that there is room for the creation of new fraternals (or the expansion or repositioning of existing ones) to address the needs of a culturally diverse number of affinity groups from occupational (nurses?), to ethnic (African-American, Native American, Asian, Indian), to religious (Evangelical Christians) to special interest groups (veterans).  I think NFCA and its members can play a key role in supporting efforts to get these groups up and running – and ensure that fraternalism remains a part of the American social fabric for the next century. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.  Please post your comments below and let me know what you think.

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