In a Nutshell: Credit unions are often known for their close connection to the communities they serve, and Sunmark Credit Union in the Albany region of New York is a perfect example of this. The credit union demonstrates its commitment to the community in several ways, including staff volunteering initiatives, event sponsorships, and donations. Sunmark Credit Union also works with local schools to facilitate financial literacy programs in the classroom, from third grade all the way through high school. And even during the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization has remained committed through monetary giving, supply donations, and virtual events.
Banks and credit unions provide similar financial services on paper, but it’s the less visible aspects of credit unions that set them apart from other financial institutions. Credit unions are known for their involvement in and commitment to the communities they service.
That’s certainly true for Sunmark Credit Union. The Albany, New York-based organization’s roots go back to 1937 when it was founded for employees of General Electric, said Audrey Stone, Sunmark’s Charitable Foundation Administrator.
Just like so many other credit unions across the country, Sunmark has expanded its initial member base and eligibility requirements significantly since its humble beginnings.
“We’re about to open our 14th branch in the Capital District,” Stone said. “And this year, we converted to a state charter so that we could expand a little faster and serve more members throughout the state and not just strictly in the capital region.”
Currently, anyone who lives, works, worships, or attends school in the designated region — which includes Schenectady, Albany, Saratoga, Rensselaer, Montgomery, Schoharie, Warren, Fulton, Columbia, Greene, Dutchess, Putnam, Rockland, and Westchester counties — is eligible to join Sunmark Credit Union.
“Throughout its history, Sunmark responded to our members’ changing needs by adding new branch locations, technologies, and services,” according to the credit union. “As we continue to grow, we continue to serve in the credit union mantra: People helping People.”
We recently spoke with Stone about how Sunmark Credit Union does just that — helping people — whether it’s volunteering for local causes, sponsoring events, or providing financial literacy resources within its communities.
Creating a Strategy Around Volunteering in the Community
Stone said that, while Sunmark associates have been volunteering in the community for many years, it wasn’t until around 2015 that the credit union began formalizing a program around these efforts.
Prior to that, an associate participating in a heart walk or volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House may have sent an email to his or her colleagues inviting them to come along. But that was the extent of it.
“We started a small group that was just volunteers to kind of put some strategy and organization into some of the volunteer efforts,” Stone said. “We knew a lot of people were involved with a lot of organizations, and we wanted to help people come together and have a larger impact.”
After the first year, Sunmark Credit Union converted the organized volunteer efforts into a full 501(c)(3) foundation. As the foundation’s sole employee, Stone said she oversees volunteer efforts, foundation giving, and overall community engagement.
Stone said that the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding, Sunmark Credit Union normally commits to one staff volunteer day per quarter.
She said the credit union offers a wide range of volunteer opportunities to match up with people’s varying schedules and priorities.
“We always have a food bank volunteer night. We do a lot with the Boys and Girls Club. We do a lot with the New York Special Olympics Capital District team,” she said. “There are a lot of other things that come up through the year, like local events like 518 Day.”
Stone explained that 518 Day, which takes place on May 18 each year and is named after the region area code, is a big community service day for the Capital District.
Supporting Local Organizations via Partnerships, Financial Literacy, and Donations
Stone discussed other ways in which Sunmark Credit Union supports the local community through event sponsorships, financial literacy efforts, and monetary donations.
“We don’t really ever do a one-and-done donation and not get involved with a cause in some other facets,” she said. “Part of my job is, if we get a request for, say, an event sponsorship through the foundation, we reach out to ask if they need volunteers as well.”
The credit union has also taken the initiative to facilitate food drives and campaigns to collect essential supplies such as toiletries for homeless shelters.
“The establishment of the Sunmark Charitable Community Foundation in 2015 has expanded our abilities to support local, nonprofit organizations in our fourteen-county charter area by providing financial contributions, in-kind services and volunteer support,” according to the organization. “There are zero administrative costs: 100% of every donation goes directly to helping those who need it.”
Some of the regular organizations, events, and causes the foundation supports include Sunmark’s Charity Golf Classic, Adopt-a-Family, Hatsgiving, and The RED Bookshelf.
Stone said Sunmark also values the importance of teaching financial literacy in its communities.
“We’ve worked with a number of schools,” she said. “We’ve done a couple of things — we’ve worked with Junior Achievement, and we have a lot of staff that volunteers with Junior Achievement and goes into the schools and presents on behalf of Sunmark.”
She said Sunmark staff members also conduct independent presentations at some local schools that have a very close relationship with the credit union. Staff members have presented to a range of children, from third graders to high school students.
“Just having somebody different come in and talk about things instead of a teacher you see every day, it’s just helpful,” Stone said.
Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic
Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made 2020 anything but a typical year. Stone talked about how the normally hands-on credit union pivoted to safely remain active in the community, and other measures Sunmark has taken to address the coronavirus.
“During this time, hands-on is not really an option, so we had to figure out different ways that we could become involved with organizations, and funding is what’s really, really important to these people at this time,” she said. “We’ve done different things — we’ve supported some virtual events and program kickoffs.”
Stone said she’s recorded many video messages in her backyard for events she or a Sunmark representative would have normally spoken at in person.
“Special Olympics is a good example,” she said. “They had a kickoff for a big program that we were supporting, and we had staff record themselves in their backyards playing catch and talking about the athletes, saying ‘Hey, we miss you, we know that you’re struggling, and we want you to know that we’re here and we’re providing some emotional support as well.’”
The Sunmark Charitable Community Foundation website also provides details on its COVID-19 response.
“In collaboration with Sunmark CU, the Foundation has made funds immediately available in a variety of ways to the organizations on the front line, working to provide relief and assistance for those impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a statement on the website.
The foundation and Sunmark Credit Union donated $10,000 to assist the Boys and Girls Club in providing breakfast and lunch to families throughout the Capital District. It also committed to a $10,000 donation to the Ronald McDonald House snack cart, which feeds children and their families during their stay.
Other recipients of funding or goods include Street Soldiers, a grassroots organization providing relief to homeless and struggling individuals and families, and the Sneakers for Charity Program.
These efforts further demonstrate Sunmark Credit Union’s ongoing commitment to serve its community in any way possible, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.