CU Breakthrough


CU Breakthrough, the consulting arm of the Federation, is dedicated to helping credit unions identify and implement sustainable solutions to increase financial independence among low- and moderate-income consumers. CU Breakthrough has the largest network of consultants specializing in community development and financial inclusion available to the credit union industry, drawing on four decades of experience in serving underserved communities. Our team of specialized consultants is available for engagements in:

Strategic Planning

The Federation offers strategic planning consulting uniquely tailored for credit unions serving low- and moderate-income members.  The Federation’s specialized planning process for credit unions involved in community finance and community development builds upon the credit union’s mission and commitment to serving underserved communities.

Our planning process is based on three essential building blocks used to develop sustainable community development strategies:

  • The regulatory framework of low-income designation
  • Leveraging CDFI certification to access external resources and foster strategic partnerships
  • Utilizing the resources and expertise developed by the Federation over almost 40 years of working with credit unions

Resource Development: Obtaining CDFI Certification

The U.S. Treasury Department Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Fund is the dominant source of grant capital for community development finance.  Every year the CDFI Fund offers more than $100 million in grants through a highly competitive application process.  The Federation is the leading advocate and liaison for CDCUs to the US Treasury Department Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) Fund.  As a result, we have intimate knowledge of certification requirements and processes ensuring efficient and effective applications.  The Federation certification process focuses in on the essential tests (Target Market test) applicable to credit unions and offers pre-screens to interested credit unions uncertain of their eligibility.

Resource Development: CDFI Grant Applications 

The CDFI Financial Assistance round provides capital awards and the CDFI Fund operates a concurrent technical assistance funding round with smaller awards.  In order to be eligible for CDFI Assistance, an applicant must be a certified CDFI and submit a detailed, multi-year business plan that includes extensive tables and narratives.  The process for developing a competitive CDFI Financial Assistance application is extensive.  The Federation recommends that CDCUs begin with a facilitated strategic planning session with key stakeholders, an analysis of the current and recent financial condition of the credit union and bold but realistic plans for growth and expansion of service to underserved consumers, business owners and/or homeowners.  Award recipients are required to comply with the terms of their CDFI Fund Assistance Agreement to remain eligible for funding.  A Federation-facilitated Emerging Market Review is recommended but not mandatory.  See below to learn more about Emerging Market Reviews.

Resource Development: Affiliate Structures

Credit unions establish or maintain affiliate/group structures to expand their access to resources, diversify their lending and investment and to sustain other supportive services.  CDCUs often need more resources than they can generate from their core business.  While there are plenty of grants and other resources for the disadvantaged populations served by credit unions, most donors/foundations only give to nonprofits with 501©(3) tax exempt status.  Similarly, individuals who support a social mission have a motivation to give to organizations that can provide a tax exempt status.  CDCU affiliates can offer financial products that credit unions often cannot, for example, equity investments in businesses and social enterprises or training-linked micro-enterprise loans, below-market loan programs for specific social purposes, and costly non-financial services such as financial counseling for individuals and small businesses.

Product Design and Development for LMI markets:

The Federation provides specialized services to credit unions to help them align their products and services to the needs and demands of low and moderate-income members by assessing the applicability of current products and services, identifying new opportunities and supporting the implementation of these new products and services.

Emerging Market Review:

The Emerging Market Review is a thorough review of a credit union’s products, services and operations to determine the alignment with the demand of the credit union’s target market(s).  CU Breakthrough teams spend 1-2 days on-site meeting with leadership, management and staff at all levels, and local partners and community leaders for an in-depth discussion of the credit union’s offerings, marketing and communications, take-up of products and the needs of the local community.  The team also analyzes the credit union’s operations, accessibility, signage and languages spoken to reflect on the fit with the target market.  Following the on-site visit, the team produces recommendations of new products and services, the bundling and enhancement of existing products, the messaging and communication of these products and services and the opportunities for both service to the community and new revenue for the credit union’s bottom line.

Financial Products and Services:

CU Breakthrough is now pleased and proud to offer specialized implementation support to credit unions looking to adopt new products and services.  This specialized implementation support shares industry “best practices,” assists in the development of policies and procedures, supports the identification of third-party vendors (if needed), and provides guidance in the connectivity to the credit union’s core operations and platforms.

Payday Loan Alternatives - The Federation has worked closely with credit union experts to support and grow payday loan alternatives.

Credit Builder Loans

Check-Cashing Services - More than 30 million Americans do not have bank or credit union accounts and must rely on high-cost, unregulated check cashers for basic financial functions. Credit unions can save these low-income consumers millions of dollars of lost wages and benefits by providing secure, responsible and affordable check-cashing services for their community, and also encourage individuals to open savings accounts. While banks commonly assume that people who rely on check cashers lack the ability to save, credit union experience shows that most simply lack the place to save.

Mobile Banking – Many credit unions now offer internet banking and are beginning to connect their members to account management via mobile apps.  New adaptations in technology, such as remote deposit capture, are particularly useful for low-income members, seasonal workers and residents of rural areas.  These mobile banking applications offer an opportunity to revolutionize access to credit union services for those previously unserved and offers credit unions a way to compete against banks and other large financial institutions.  Federation consultants will guide credit unions interested in exploring and implementing mobile banking features.

Affordable Home Mortgage Programs – The Federation provides access to free training for credit union homeownership counselors, network support and peer learning opportunities, best practice tools and guides and targeted consulting for credit unions building their homeownership counseling program.  The Federation helps the credit union get on a path to becoming a HUD certified housing counseling organization.

Small and Micro-business lending – Small business loans are available to enterprises with fewer than 250 employees and micro-business loans are available to businesses with fewer than six employees.  Small businesses account for half the national income and more than half of all employment in the United States.  For many of these businesses, access to capital is the difference between success and failure.  Small and micro business loans from credit unions have specific policies that promote loan performance and success among local enterprises.  Robust credit union programs often include partnerships with local business groups , government agencies and nonprofit organizations that together can contribute contacts, capital, loan guarantees and training.

Asset Building Programs: VITA and EITC

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)/ Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC)  are IRS initiatives designed to promote and support free tax preparation services for LMI populations, including the elderly, disabled, limited-English speaking, non-urban, and native American taxpayers.  VITAs provide a secure, private location for tax preparation and counseling.  These programs include opportunities to open accounts for tax filers interested in saving a portion of their refunds.

Asset Building Programs: IDAs

Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) are special savings accounts that match the deposits of LMI individuals. For every dollar saved in an IDA, savers receive a corresponding match which serves as both a reward and an incentive for further savings.  Savers complete financial education classes and use their savings for an asset-building purpose such as: education or job training, home purchase or starting a small business.  Generally speaking, a participant must be within the income guideline of “200% of poverty.”

CU Breakthrough™ is a service of the National Federation of Community Development Credit Unions. To learn more about these services, contact us at or (800) 437-8711, ext. 306.

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