Soft Money

Curled up in an armchair in front of a fireplace reading her New York Times, Rachel Jones has almost forgotten she's waiting for a friend to wrap up some business a few feet away – or, for that matter, that she's in a bank. “It's so cool,” the Tufts junior says. “There's free Internet, as opposed to Fleet, which makes you pay to see its tellers.”

With its cozy space, colorful chairs, complimentary Internet access and coffee, and flat-screen TV broadcasting CNN, Wainwright Bank's “cybercafé” branch in Davis Square has become the new “it” bank. The branch reached its one-year goal for deposits just eight weeks after opening.

Despite its comparatively slight $488 million in assets (compared to, say, Fleet's $192 billion), Wainwright promotes a socially progressive agenda. Founded in 1987, the bank, with just nine branches (Fleet has 343 in Massachusetts alone), awards loans to advocates for affordable housing, homelessness, women's rights, and gay and lesbian causes, and hosts a Web site ( for its nonprofit business customers. Community development projects comprise a whopping 40 percent of the bank's commercial loan portfolio, says senior vice president Steven Young. More than half of Wainwright's officers are women, and a third are minorities; all get at least three weeks of annual vacation. And prospective employees are asked questions such as, “If you have a lesbian couple with eyebrow rings in front of you, how are you going to deal with that?”

Young says that when Wainwright launched its “socially responsible” vision, he assumed other banks would copy it. “Non-profits pay us back,” he says. “It's very good business. We've been kind of surprised [large banks] haven't sought out community development. If they did this, it would eliminate huge social injustice issues.”

Jones, a former Fleet customer, and fellow Tufts student Louis Esparza, both have opened Wainwright accounts. “I need a banking source, and to have it put money into places I support makes sense,” Jones says admiringly. “I would never be caught dead with a Fleet debit card,” Esparza adds. “Lots of people are changing their bank. I'm just telling everyone about it.”