The key difference: Ownership structure
Banks are corporations - owned by their stockholders. Typically, and especially with larger banks, these shareholders are Wall Street institutions. However, there are many smaller neighborhood and regional banks with more local ownership. Credit unions, on the other hand, aren't owned by stockholders on Wall Street; we're owned by our members on the local Main Street!
True, neither banks nor credit unions are in business to lose money. We both need to make profits on our goods and services to stay in business. The difference is this: When a bank makes money, they send their profits to their stockholders. When a credit union makes a profit, on the other hand, we pass it on to our members. This can be in the form of a dividend or credit, better rates, technological investments and a variety of actions that bring greater value to members of the cooperative. And because we're not so focused on pleasing distant shareholders through issuing a dividend every quarter, we can frequently offer services and loans with lower costs than banks.
Our mutual ownership structure gives us another advantage too: Wall Street can't pressure us to make unwise decisions for short-term gains at the expense of our membership. Every decision we make is solely in the long-term, best interest of our shareholders.
For example: In normal economic times, credit union and bank failures are very rare. That story changed during the mortgage crisis of 2008-2009. Leading up to the crisis, publicly traded banks were under intense pressure from Wall Street to make loads of questionable loans so they could keep short-term numbers up. Credit unions were free to make sound and rational decisions that were in the best interests of members, not Wall Street. According to information published by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the National Credit Union Association, banks were failing at a rate 3 times higher than credit unions in 2008, and had a failure rate of five times that of credit unions.
In good times, credit unions have a great track record. And when times are tough, there's no comparison.