“Dr. Ebert never asked me how I was doing, a detail that bewildered my family,” Haines wrote in an unpublished memoir of the event. “But I understood. The man wanted to be paid for work. After hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills I had accumulated, it was Dr. Ebert who gave me the chance to drag my paralyzed body across my bed in the coming light of morning to answer his call.”
The framed copy of Ebert’s $350 bill hangs in Haines’s study, a daily reminder of the stranger who took an interest in his plight.
Some three years after the accident, Haines signed on to lead Neal Keny-Guyer’s initiative to create a new domestic front in Mercy Corps’ aid efforts. His idea: take the principles of financing tiny start-up businesses that Mercy Corps and others had pioneered in war- and disaster-stricken areas of the world, and apply them here at home. Having watched Haines work at ShoreBank and in the Czech Republic, Keny-Guyer regarded him as “the classic example of the social entrepreneur: someone who, in a time of crisis, can see that some of our toughest challenges become windows of opportunity.”
Keny-Guyer’s friend Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi professor and economist, had blazed a trail to follow. In 1976, Yunus founded the groundbreaking Grameen Bank Project, testing his theory that a modest business loan made to a motivated individual with little or no net worth could have far greater impact on that person’s bottom line than a traditional “no strings attached” handout of food or money. Over the ensuing decades, Grameen loaned $6.5 billion (in average increments of $130) to 7.34 million impoverished Bangladeshis—and turned a profit. In 2006, Yunus received a Nobel Peace Prize for his work—his bank had taken 80,000 beggars off the streets of Bangladesh by extending individual loans of just $12. “All we are doing,” Yunus said, “is telling beggars that, well, since you go house to house begging, would you like to take some merchandise with you, some cookies, some candy?”
With Yunus’s example in mind, Haines set out to develop a microloan program at Mercy Corps Northwest that would serve as a template to be replicated in cities across the United States.
More than 500 nonprofits in America already offer some form of assistance to low-income individuals. Most often, these loans go to business enterprises with five or fewer employees and less than $35,000 in capital. But few American agencies have ventured into the terrain Haines wanted to explore: funding the commercial ambitions of those seen as being truly hopeless, some ex-criminals with little or no income and no practical way out of their predicament.
“You might have a woman coming out of prison who wants to start a hair salon with skills she learned while incarcerated,” Haines explains. “She has ideas. She’s motivated to get back with her kids and build a life for herself. Yet no bank will make her a loan, or even open an account for her, because she might have a fraud conviction for identity theft. So where does she go?”
Ditto for the legions of unemployed Americans, like the mortgage broker from Olympia to whom Mercy Corps’ loan committee granted a $2,000 lifeline: he used to pull in a six-figure income but now, without a paycheck, he no longer qualifies to refinance his home, much less for a loan to launch a risky business.
“Look at it from a business perspective,” Haines says. “It’s an untapped market. There’s an enormous need, and it’s unfulfilled.”
More than just a lender; Mercy Corps Northwest has become an incubator of entrepreneurs. Haines and his staffers school the poor and uninitiated in the fundamentals of business and marketing, help them craft business plans, and establish matched saving accounts. They extend loans only to those whose requests seem poised for success, following up with one-on-one mentoring through the challenging start-up phase. In taking on the riskiest loans, Haines reasons, local banks should be willing to lend the organization seed capital and expertise, because in helping otherwise unbankable entrepreneurs establish financial track records, Mercy Corps is creating a stream of proven new customers.