Amidst the Pandemic San Mateo CU Distributes Dollars And Dreams

Wade Painter
San Mateo CU CEO Wade Painter

EDITOR'S NOTE: Below is an excerpt from an article in featuring an interview with San Mateo CU CEO Wade Painter discussing how the credit union quickly launched a non-profit fund to grant much-needed assistance to the communities it serves when the pandemic hit last year.

When the citizens of San Mateo County started experiencing economic distress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, their local community credit union sprang into action, creating the SMCU Community Fund on April 14, 2020.

Throughout the year, San Mateo Credit Union ($1.4B, Redwood City, CA) distributed nearly $11 million in grants through the fund. And, it has plans to continue its efforts in 2021.

“We created the fund to amplify our ability to impact economic vitality in the community,” says Wade Painter, CEO of SMCU.

Here, Painter discusses 2020, the SMCU Community Fund, “San Mateo Strong,” and more.

What kind of year was 2020 for your community—financially and emotionally?

No doubt 2020 was a tough year, financially and emotionally, for everyone in our community. It was particularly hard for our community’s small businesses and their employees.

On the flip side, it’s been gratifying to see how well our community rallied to support one another, with folks continuing to support local businesses in sidewalk or takeout modes and many financial assistance grants focused on our community’s small businesses. There’s been a real feeling of togetherness and doing all we can to help one another. That’s a silver-lining to the pandemic.

How did SMCU respond to the pandemic?

We protected our branch staff and members with extensive branch safety protocols. We reduced the number of members in the branches and ensured members were safely distanced, added procedures to our already rigorous cleaning and sanitizing schedule at branches and ATMs, supplied hand sanitizer at every location, and implemented bi-weekly COVID-19 testing for all staff in late summer.

We also deployed laptops and peripheral devices to all 140 of our back-office staff to continue serving members and carry on business while maintaining a high level of productivity. In fact, we originated the most mortgages in our history in 2020, and we orchestrated a successful digital banking conversation during the summer.

We supported our members with loan relief measures that included six-month deferrals for mortgages, three-month extensions for auto and personal loans, and three months of a zero-minimum payment for credit cardholders. We also offered the flexibility to structure solutions to meet the needs of struggling borrowers. Our relief measures impacted more than 5,000 members with balances totaling $270 million.

Finally, we benefitted the community by forming the SMCU Community Fund, a 501(c)(3), and collaborated with San Mateo County and other area non-profit foundations and donors to distribute $10.8 million in grants throughout the community in 2020.

“We have always identified our role as being part of the fabric that ensures the wellbeing of our community.”

When times were most challenging, how did you view the role of the credit union?

As a community credit union with long-established, deep connections with county government and non-profits throughout the county, we have always identified our role as being part of the fabric that ensures the wellbeing of our community. As it became clear the pandemic would be a long-term event, our board of directors and senior leadership team evaluated the best and most impactful ways we could contribute to the wellbeing of our community. That set the stage for the formation of our SMCU Community Fund.

What is its purpose the SMCU Community Fund?

We created the fund to amplify our ability to impact economic vitality in the community. We take pride in not only perceiving the need for a non-profit early in the pandemic but also incorporating it and receiving contributions within weeks. Given our preparedness and swift action, we were ready to hit the ground running when San Mateo County came to us with the opportunity to collaborate on financial assistance grants to small businesses.

We demonstrated not only our competency for doing this type of work but also our dedication and passion for helping our community thrive, which in turn led the county to come back to us for more community relief efforts.

Talk about developing the fund. What kind of buy-in did you need to get something like this off the ground?

One of our board members gave me a heads-up in late March that the county was planning to create a San Mateo County Strong fund to provide financial assistance to various entities throughout the county. Further, the county would allocate $3 million in seed money from CARES Act funds. However, the county needed to find a partner that could receive and underwrite grant applications and disburse grants as well as receive donations from the county and other contributors.

We believed our expertise in lending made us uniquely qualified to perform this role. However, receiving donations from the county and other contributors would be easier if we had a non-profit entity. Accordingly, we committed to forming a 501(c)(3) non-profit public benefit corporation.

I reached out to Brett Martinez, CEO of Redwood Credit Union ($5.9B, Santa Rosa, CA), which had formed its own 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation to provide fire relief following the Sonoma County fires in 2017. Brett put us in contact with the attorney that worked with his credit union. The attorney helped us expedite the incorporation of the fund by mid-April. During this time, management provided updates to the board, which was supportive of our efforts. We received our first $1 million from the county in early May and soon after started accepting grant applications from small businesses.

You said the county initially planned on naming the “San Mateo Strong.” What does that term mean to you?

San Mateo Strong is based on the strength and resilience of our community. We are San Mateo County — we know how to support one another. We’ve done it before. Together, we’ll get through this and come out even stronger.

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