While it may have started small, no one is likely ever to accuse the $64 million Hope Community Credit Union of thinking small.
Founded in 1995 by current CEO Bill Bynum and some other like minded volunteers at the Anderson United Methodist Church in Jackson, Miss., Hope Community is the winner of the Credit Union Times 2009 Trailblazer Award for Outstanding Service to the Underserved.
The credit union got underway primarily as means to foster asset development, cooperation and self-empowerment among low-income Jackson residents.
Organizers believed a credit union would be a good means to promote savings and community reinvestment in distressed areas, educate youth about economics and finance and provide community members with greater access to affordable financial services.
The credit union has become the institution it is today, one Hope executive explained, since their hard work paid off.
"What really happened was that Bill and the other volunteers that got the credit union going were finding it harder and harder to meet its needs," explained Alan Branson, chief operating officer for both Hope and its sponsoring organization, the Enterprise Corp. of the Delta. "On the one hand, the credit union saw the need to expand its offerings beyond the walls of the church, while on the other hand, every new additional field of membership challenged the organizers further."
Branson explained that the strain continued until, in 2002, ECD became the credit union's primary sponsor, a move that Branson said played on the strengths of each.
"When ECD and Hope got together it was really a good time for the credit union," Branson explained. "The organizers had gotten to the point where they really needed the sort of experience and institutional lending structure that ECD had because ECD had been offering loans for some time."
One quick and very important result of the merger came in 2004 when the credit union and ECD won an award of $15 million from the New Markets Tax Credit program of the U.S. Treasury's Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
The NMTC has generally only funded larger community development banks and funds and, so far, Hope is the only credit union to ever win NMTC money.
Branson explained that the NMTC grant was key to the CU's growth since it provided the secondary capital it needed to meet the growing needs it encountered.
He explained that the NMTC money allowed Hope to achieve the strong balance sheet it needed to grow to a size where it could really make a difference in the lives of its members along with their businesses and communities.
Since then, Hope has grown to 11 branches and roughly 70 employees, Branson said, with a presence in underserved communities in four Delta states: Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee.
But the expansion has not been without challenge nor entirely planned. For example, Hope's brand new branch in a lower income part of New Orleans was barely a few months old when Hurricane Katrina ravaged and flooded the city.
"I think at the time, we had five employees at that branch," Branson said. "And so far only one has been able to get back."
Undeterred, the credit union swung into action, offering emergency rebuilding loans and finding a broader need on the Gulf Coast than it had originally foreseen. Now the credit union and ECD have over 30 employees working in different Gulf Coast communities and has just opened a branch in Biloxi, Miss., one of the hardest hit communities.
Additional growth has occurred through mergers with other community development credit unions-one in Arkansas and another in Tennessee. Branson said the credit union had been aware that there might be merger opportunities in its future because of its strong balance sheet but denied that the credit union had courted anyone or gone looking for partners.
"The thing about the mergers is that they were both with very compatible institutions, credit unions that were already on similar development paths," Branson explained. "The mergers have been very smooth."
All the growth has enabled the credit union to further its outreach and work with a growing pool of members, particularly women, minority and very low-income members.
"For a large part of our membership, their first real contact with us is getting a bank account, a savings account, they have never had one before," Branson said.
The credit union also made more than 50% of its member business loans through the third quarter of 2008 to minority- and women-owned businesses, and 20% to nonprofit entities working to provide daycare, affordable housing and health care. Hope has also built financial literacy training, community participation and savings initiatives into its operations. At this time of year, Branson said, the CU has also launched a significant push to help lower income members file their taxes to obtain their earned income tax credit.
To some it has seemed like Hope has come out of nowhere to have become a significant part of the community development effort across a broad area, but Branson said it only appears that way. In fact, the work Bynum and others have done helping Hope and ECD get underway gave both institutions the experience and connections they needed.
"I suppose it might look like we have covered a long way in a very short period of time," Branson said. "But that doesn't reflect the amount of time, work and effort that went in behind the scenes to get us to where we are. What we know is that our efforts and future are tied to the people and communities of the Delta, and we are proud to be able to bring some of the financial services they have lacked for years."