Expanding economic opportunities to rural areas in the Deep South is at the forefront of the work of the most recent recipient of a prestigious annual award that honors the achievements of individuals making long-lasting community contributions.
The recipient, William (Bill) Bynum, received the Heinz Award for the Economy for his work with HOPE Credit Union, a full-service financial institution with branches in Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. HOPE serves low-wealth communities that don’t have access to the tools for financial success.
“The jurors gravitated towards candidates whose work has the potential for ‘generational reverberations’,” said Kim O’Dell, director of the Heinz Awards. “They noted Mr. Bynum’s commitment to improving economic opportunities by moving capital to historically marginalized populations as well as the scale and replicability of his work.”
The Heinz Family Foundation honors several individuals each year for their contributions to the arts, environment, public policy, human condition, and economy. The award was started in 1993 by Teresa Heinz to honor people working in the fields most valued by her late husband, H. John Heinz III, who represented Pennsylvania in the U.S. House and Senate.
“Mr. Bynum has an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of others,” said O’Dell. “His work personifies Senator John Heinz’s belief that people have the power and responsibility to make the world a better place.”
Many of the members of HOPE are first time users of a traditional bank.
“Almost half of our members didn’t have a bank account before they joined the credit union,” said Bynum. “They relied on high-cost check cashers and payday lenders who take advantage of those who can least afford to pay.”
HOPE opens branches in communities with low capital to stimulate the local economy and improve financial conditions for people who have not been able to accumulate savings or assets because of generational wealth extraction by entities like predatory loan companies. HOPE works to provide people the ability to get out of debt, improve their quality of life, become home and business-owners, and influence economic policy.
To Bynum, these initiatives are key to advancing economic justice for disenfranchised communities.
“In a country that is increasingly diverse, we can’t leave the majority of the population on the outside of the economy,” said Bynum. “It undermines the stability of the entire economy and it is counter to our collective interest.”
Between April 2020 and April 2021, HOPE issued over 5,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans that allowed businesses to retain their employees during the pandemic.
According to Bynum, HOPE issued loans to businesses unable to obtain paycheck protection loans through the banks they already had existing relationships with. Many of these were Black-owned small businesses that were less likely to receive loans through traditional banking institutions, according to a recently released case study from Purdue University and Harvard Business School on the Paycheck Protection Program. If these businesses did receive them, it was from nonbank lenders like fintechs, which provide loans online.
The loans distributed by HOPE kept Black-owned businesses afloat during a time when they were facing closures at an extremely high rate: 41% of all Black-owned businesses in the United States closed between February and April of 2020, according to a report by the House Committee on Small Business.
“Each of those loans helps stabilize jobs in very low-income communities,” said Bynum. “We were in a very fortunate position to extend the lifeline to these entrepreneurs. ”
HOPE has also initiated a Transformational Deposit program. This program imports capital into wealth-starved communities through deposits funded by individuals, institutional depositors, financial advisors, banks, and any other entity willing to participate in the program.
Unlike traditional banks that use the funds from their customers’ low or no-cost checking and savings accounts for loans, accounts with HOPE do not have enough funds to draw from to provide loans to local businesses and initiatives like housing and healthcare. Instead, this money needs to be brought in from elsewhere. In spring of 2020, Netflix made a $10 million deposit, and companies like Dick’s Sporting Goods and Paypal followed suit.
“We’ve raised over $100 million in transformational deposits in the past year, which enables us to finance a lot of homes, small businesses, grocery stores, schools, and health centers across the rural Deep South,” said Bynum.
It is accomplishments like these that drove the Heinz Family Foundation to present Bynum with the Heinz Award.
“The enormity and timeliness of the issues Mr. Bynum addresses made it critically important to celebrate his work,” said O’Dell.
Included in the award is an unrestricted $250,000. Bynum plans to use some of the money to further the work at HOPE, with a portion of it already allocated to the institution’s policy center. He also hopes to build an endowment that would enable HOPE to take the voices of the people they serve and ensure their perspectives are considered when policymakers decide how to allocate resources.
“It’s certainly an incredible honor to be associated with the Heinz family and they’ve given me an opportunity to dream a bit about how to best put the resources to work,” said Bynum.
To read The Daily Yonder’s full interview with Bynum, click here.