If you’re a regular Bankrate reader, you know credit unions have a lot of perks for members, including generally higher deposit rates, lower fees for checking and lower rates for loans than conventional banks. But here’s one thing you may not know: When credit unions are doing well, they sometimes pay members bonus dividends.

Members of Founders Federal Credit Union got a pleasant surprise this morning when they found out Founders would be giving out $10 million in bonus dividends. From Andrew Dunn at the Charlotte Observer:

Founders Federal Credit Union will return $10 million to its members in the form of a bonus dividend, the Lancaster, S.C.-based institution said Thursday.

Unlike banks, credit unions are tax-exempt and owned by their members. While not uncommon, such returns have been scarce in recent years as the financial industry as a whole has struggled.

“We’re in a financial position we can afford to do this,” Founders CEO Bruce Brumfield said. “Our members need this money right now more than we do.”

Half of the total will go to depositors, based on the amount of interest they’ve accrued. The other $5 million will go to borrowers based on the amount of interest they’ve paid.

The bonus dividends will be calculated as of Oct. 31 and deposited in accounts Nov. 30. While amounts will vary, the average member who has both a deposit account and a loan will receive about $100, Brumfield said.

This is pretty remarkable, especially when you consider the climate in the rest of the banking industry right now, with fees rising and any kind of rewards becoming a rarity.

But while checking accounts at banks and credit unions may operate similarly on the surface, actions like these reveal the fundamental differences in the way banks and credit unions are structured. As Dunn notes, in better times, it’s not unusual for credit unions to pay out excess profits to members, who, in effect, collectively own the institution as shareholders. At a bank, those profits would go to stockholders in the form of stock dividends.

When you juxtapose Founders’ bonus dividend to members with what’s been going on recently in the banking industry as a whole, the contrast is really striking. It’s no wonder more than 650,000 Americans have joined credit unions in the last few months.

What do you think? Have you ever gotten a free money from your credit union? Is this window dressing, or evidence that credit unions and banks are fundamentally different?

Follow me on Twitter: @ClaesBell

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