Thousands of families in the US South finally have access to financial services

Laureate
Bill Bynum
Program
McNulty Prize
Location
Mid-South, United States
McNULTY PRIZE WINNER

This is part of a series of leadership case studies featuring McNulty Prize Laureates.


Bill Bynum grew up in a world characterised by mistrust – between white and black, between rich and poor and between the institutional world and those whose customs weren’t wanted. Down the road from his family’s home in a blue-collar rural town, the Ku Klux Klan had their weekly meetings. Schools were segregated; when his parents, seeking a better education for him, put him in a “white” school, Bill was the only person of color on the bus. Until he managed to connect with the other kids, naturally he was bullied.


As a low-earning, rural-town family of color, Bill’s parents were exactly the demographic considered undesirable by banks. Instead, their support came from a credit union run from the vice principal’s garage.

It is the credit union that paid for the suit that Bill took to college. So Bill understands at a visceral level the price of mistrust, and what exclusion from the formal financial system means. It means never owning a car in areas where there may be little public transport, which in turn limits the range of work opportunities. It means never owning a home. It means predatory interest rates of up to 400%, and a cycle of poverty from which there is no escape. “Hopelessness is when you don’t have the means to support your family, when you don’t have financing to support businesses that create jobs, to finance access to basic health care services, when you don’t have the ability to get a loan to send your kid to college. You don’t have a way out and up the economic ladder,” says Bill.

Bill developed an early passion to pursue a career in economic justice. Though he’d originally hoped to do so as an attorney, he began to believe that economic empowerment was more effective than court redress. In his first job after college – helping employees who were losing their jobs as a result of plant closings to buy the businesses and become owner-employees – he was exposed to the reality of the economic divide: “Sometimes we got laughed out of the office because it was not typical to see low-income people, women, rural residents, people of color aspire to become business owners.”

A fierce advocate for market-based routes to economic justice, Bill Bynum founded the Enterprise Corporation for the Delta in 1994 to help businesses around Jackson, Mississippi.

In 1995, Bill and his pastor took over a struggling credit union (a financial institution owned jointly by its depositors) and encouraged church members to join.

Bill's experience creating small businesses and community empowerment led him to advise Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama on community development and financial services.

In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, communities protected their Hope locations from looting, and the credit union was one of the first to reopen and help people get their lives back on track.

In 2012, the Friends of Hope group was launched to raise $20m for the Hope Group, allowing them to reach more customers and to influence policy at state and national levels.

By 2015, Hope had 31,000 depositors and made $31 million in loans to 2,000 borrowers. Every client of Hope is a client no longer vulnerable to loan sharks and payday lenders.

62%
Of African-Americans in Mississippi are unbanked.
400%
Interest rates are often imposed on families from short-term predatory lenders.
30,000
Members are served by Hope, one out of three of whom were unbanked when they joined.

In 1994, Bill moved to Jackson, Mississippi, as founding CEO of the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, aimed at helping businesses in the area. His local pastor discovered Bill’s interest in and previous work with credit unions: “He decided that that was going to be my ministry.”

“Every Sunday morning he’d get up in front of the congregation, stop church and people would go outside and sign up.”

And so Hope was born. “Our charge was to transform the economy of the Delta. We were naïve enough to think that we could do that.” But without professional staff or systems, and with only 700 members, the credit union only limped along until 1998, when Bill became a Henry Crown Fellow of the Aspen Institute, and made Hope his venture.

The thinking available in the Fellowship was transformative, says Bill, and over a few years, Bill dovetailed the strengths and weaknesses of his “day job,” the Enterprise Corporation of the Delta, with those of Hope, ultimately navigating a solution that saw the establishment of a stronger, more sustainable entity: the Hope Enterprise Corporation. “Each of them rescued me from the other,” he laughs.

There was a 100-year-old woman who used her birthday money to open her first account. She had never felt welcome at a bank before, but she felt comfortable walking into Hope.

— Bill Bynum

Hope, now better resourced and professionally managed, expanded across the region and is transforming communities: “Hope in a community is when people have the ability to support their families, when even kids can go into a financial institution and be respected. Hope is dignity, when people have the ability to control their own destiny.”

The communities responded in ways Bill could not have anticipated: “In December 2005, we opened our branch in New Orleans. We had little children come through the door, many of them in a financial institution for the first time. The community had been generations without a financial institution. They had pawnshops and check cashing, but they’d never had a bank.

“And so here we were, opening not just a financial institution, but a community-owned financial institution. That was so exciting.

“Nine months later, after Hurricane Katrina hit, it was so gratifying that, while so many people’s lives were turned upside down and businesses were being looted, the community protected Hope. They did what they needed to do to make sure we were sound.

“As a result, we were in a position to open doors soon after Katrina and provide people with tools they needed to start to rebuild their lives, with loans to put a roof over their heads, to get temporary lodging and a safe place to think about how they could get their lives moving back in the right direction.

“I think it is that kind of a relationship with a community that sets Hope apart.”

Hope is dignity. Hope is when people have the ability to control their own destiny.

— Bill Bynum

Crisis, it turned out, is good for business. “With Katrina we more than doubled our member size and books. But it helped us to help a lot of people. The 2008 mortgage crisis was equally stressful. Banks accelerated the closure of branches, replaced by predatory lenders. We used the infrastructure we built for Katrina to help us grow through this.”

America is responding warmly to the ethical banking alternative: “While 75-80% of our members are from lower-income communities, 75% of our deposits now come from middle- to upper-income people and businesses. Initially, the banks took no notice. Now, regional banks see Hope as competition, but some larger banks see the synergies, and have invested in Hope.”

Still, Bill believes that the work of Hope is nowhere near done. “Every member, every account, every home, every business you get out of the debt trap, is good” says Bill, “but I know that there are many things we’re not touching.”

In the beginning, Bill knew every member, and every loan. With the maturing of the organization, that’s not possible, and Bill’s role is changing. He hasn’t found the transition easy, as he finds real pleasure in connection, in going out into the communities, talking to people, and getting to hear their stories. “But the advice from Henry Crown Fellows – and they were right – is that my work is now to take our thinking and the experience of our members to policymakers, and see how they can change the way they approach areas like the Delta. Ultimately, working on policy will mean the indirect impact will be much greater.”

It’s a logical next step for a leader who has, effectively, worked for civil rights his whole life.  “The Mid-South is the epicenter of the civil rights movement," he says. "Martin Luther King Jr., Medger Evers, Emmett Till – they died so that the work we’re doing at Hope could happen, so that economic justice could be available to all."

“When Hope succeeds,” he says, “America succeeds.”

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