Prize-linked savings a gamble.
Many of the programs have reaped measurable ROI and some have even garnered attention from national media for making a significant change in members' lives.
By using gamification, credit unions have motivated members to save, increased financial awareness, and significantly improved reputation and relationship with members, according to a Filene study.
In an Aug. 30 article, the New York Times reported that Save to Win, the nation's largest reward-driven savings program, encouraged credit union members across the country to create 50,000 accounts and save $94 million since 2009.
Save to Win, which offers prizes that vary by state, was launched by the Michigan Credit Union League & Affiliates, Filene Research Institute and the Doorways to Dreams, a Boston-based non-profit organization that had received a grant in 2008 from the Center for Financial Services Innovation in Chicago to study the viability of an innovative PLS program in the U.S.
"We are thrilled to see this program get nationwide attention for the role it plays in motivating people to build up their savings and become financially empowered," said Ken Ross, EVP and COO of MCUL & Affiliates, which piloted Save to Win.
The New York Times reporter learned about D2D and Save to Win through a blog post, Ross said, adding he was pleased that the article featured several credit union members who were directly impacted by the savings program.
"That helps make a real connection about how programs such as Save to Win showcase the credit union industry's long-standing commitment to giving members tools to realize their financial dreams," he said. "By providing incentives that are not just fluff, we can encourage people to develop good savings habits."
Doorways to Dreams and MCUL continue to collaborate on Save to Win, which is currently offered at 57 credit unions including in Michigan, Washington, Nebraska and North Carolina, Ross said.
Most credit unions are banned from operating PLS plans under a federal law that prevents banks and credit unions from operating lotteries, but some states, including Indiana, Connecticut and New York, have recently modified banking laws to allow prize-linked savings accounts, he said.
"These accounts have won support from a rare combination of liberal poverty advocates and conservatives who like the private market-based approach and emphasis on personal responsibility," according to the Aug. 30 New York Times' article on "Using Gambling to Entice Low-Income Families to Save."
Ross said the Michigan league is eager to work with new states as the program continues to grow. Some states have experienced push-back on legislation. For example, a previous PLS proposal advanced by the Iowa Credit Union League was defeated in Iowa, according to the New York Times' article.
Critics have argued that PLS programs such as Save to Win promote gambling, but proponents have contended the savings accounts are not a gamble because initial deposits are not at risk.
Advocates have contended that the programs encourage low-income people to invest in a savings account instead of gambling, which is especially important since research has shown that low-income populations tend to spend the most on lottery tickets.
In Congress, bills to modify federal banking laws and permit more financial institutions to offer PLS accounts have Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, according to the New York Times article. During a July 15 hearing before the House Committee on Financial Services Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit, Peter Tufano, co-founder of D2D and dean of Said Business School at the University of Oxford, submitted a Statement for the Record, the New York Times reported.
"Based on my research and my experience with household finance as well as my studies of PLS in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States, I believe that expanding access to PLS accounts will help solve the savings crisis in America," Tufano said.
When the program was piloted at nine Michigan CUs in 2009, more than 6,000 new accounts were opened in just 18 weeks at the participating credit unions. Each cooperative reported an average of $100,000 per week in money saved during that time.
The New York Times' article also mentioned SaveUp, a for-profit product that offers users a chance to win a $2 million jackpot.
SaveUp, which was launched in 2011 with the assistance of Filene Research Institute, was tapped last year to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative America, an annual campaign focused on developing solutions that promote economic recovery in the U.S.
The initiative's goal is to help 250,000 Americans build $5 billion in asset growth through savings and debt reduction by December 2014, the Michigan-based CUSO said.
By offering SaveUp, credit unions have increased member engagement, loyalty and deposits, according to a Filene study.
Other prize-linked savings programs have also reaped measurable ROI. The $350 million Neighborhood Credit Union in Dallas launched its Prize Savings Account in 2007 during a time when the national savings rate was at a historic low.
Carolyn Jordan, SVP of remote services and member development, told CU Times Neighborhood has invested more than $300,000 in cash and prizes since the program's inception.
The program rewards members for good saving habits by offering cash prizes of $1,000 monthly, $10,000 quarterly and $25,000 annually, along with smaller cash awards, digital cameras, plasma TVs, iPads and other rewards, according to the credit union.
"We are investing in our members and helping them enhance their financial well-being through smart, consistent saving," Jordan said. "The great news is that it's working. Prize Savings has experienced double digit growth over the past few years."
The Prize Savings Account grew by 12% in 2011, 23% in 2012, 15% in 2013, and is on target for 17% growth this year, she noted. The cost of funds on the account is 0.27%, including the cost of prizes and dividends.
For other credit unions contemplating whether to launch PLS programs, Jordan recommended consulting with legal counsel regarding state laws. She said credit unions should also ensure the proper policies, documents and disclosures are in place before launching the program. That might involve implementing proper protocol for accounting, she advised.
"From an accounting perspective and in accordance with Truth-in-Savings, the prizes are considered as dividends or interest," Jordan explained. "At the end of the year, we issue a 1099-INT to members who have won prizes. Accordingly, this is not considered a part of our marketing budget"
Credit unions should also ensure that automated systems are in place to minimize manual processes, she said.
"In the beginning, we had some extensive manual processes, but we have streamlined and automated many of the tasks," Jordan said.
As a final piece of advice, Jordan cautioned credit unions to keep it simple when starting a PLS program.
"Make it easy for your members to use and understand your prize-linked savings program," she suggested. "The easier it is, the more members will participate and the more money they will save, which is a win-win for everyone."
* A New York Times article put the spotlight on prize-linked savings accounts.
* Nationwide programs like Save to Win and SaveUp are reaping measurable ROI.
* More states are modifying banking laws to allow PLS accounts.
READ more on prize-linked savings accounts. CUTimes.com/SaveUp