What: Microlending giant. Provides the poor with access to loans and training to grow modest businesses doing anything from repairing motorcycles to weaving baskets.
Who: "We don't need to give people charity," says Maria Otero, ACCION's CEO. "We need to give people opportunity and access." Born to the wealthy elite in La Paz, Bolivia, Otero, 54, is the daughter of a banker. Her career path initially took her to the ivory tower, but by 1986, she was running ACCION's program in Honduras.
How: ACCION's strategy alleviates poverty -- and pays for itself. The key: partnerships with non-governmental organizations and banks that lend to the poor. Partners get funding, expertise, and access to ACCION's debt and equity tools. Those ties and the launch of a $20 million investment fund have set the stage for expansion: Otero plans to triple ACCION's "active client" base by 2008.
Data point: Since 1990, ACCION and its partners have issued $5.8 billion in loans as small as $100 to 3.2 million people; 97% have been paid back.
-- Jennifer Vilaga
Aspire Public Schools
What: Charter-school pioneer. Fueled by the belief that college is the clearest pathway to sustainable social change, Aspire manages 16 California schools, aiming to double the number of poor children who get college degrees.
Who: Don Shalvey, 60, had 38 years in education and Reed Hastings had $752 million from the sale of his company, Pure Software, when the two met at a conference. They worked to pass a state law lifting the cap on charter schools. That opened the door for Aspire; Shalvey became the new group's executive director, while Hastings went on to start Netflix.
How: Aspire shares its business plan with anyone who wants it. "The idea isn't to hold on to the competitive edge -- it's to share," Shalvey says. Aspire is working with the Boys and Girls Clubs to build a new school, and is dividing land in Stockton between a new school and low-cost homes.
Data point: 94% of Aspire parents give the schools an A or a B, compared with 70% nationwide.
-- Fiona Haley
What: Youth service corps. Today's young volunteers will be tomorrow's leaders, City Year believes. So it puts diverse teams of youths together to work for a year on community projects.
Who: Alan Khazei and Michael Brown, both 43, were freshman roommates at Harvard -- and forged a career-long partnership. After law school and a stint on Gary Hart's presidential campaign, Khazei came to realize that change had to come from grassroots projects -- and from kids. He and Brown started City Year in 1988.
How: City Year reaches deep into 15 urban communities to recruit young people from across the social spectrum to work together tutoring kids, tending community gardens, and more. The point: to root volunteering in the minds of youths. City Year is an "action tank," generating and testing new ideas and growing them to scale. "If national service worked at scale, every generation would be the greatest generation," Khazei says. Now piloting: a City Year in South Africa.
Data point: City Year alumni are twice as likely to vote as their peers, and 90% of them volunteer regularly with a nonprofit.
-- Fiona Haley
What: College-prep service. Aims to correct the underenrollment of low-income students in college by demystifying the application process and providing counseling.
Who: J.B. Schramm, 41, saw as a senior at an inner-city Denver high school that many of his friends weren't going on to college -- not for lack of ability, but because no one at home was encouraging them. Ten years ago, he began his mission: Working out of the basement of a housing project in Washington, DC, he gave four underprivileged high-school students informal "kitchen table" support that helped them get into college.
How: College Summit works within high schools, many lacking a formal college transition system. Each summer, it holds workshops for kids and their teachers, offering the tools and support to successfully apply to college. The idea: Those "peer leaders" and faculty will spread the gospel when classes start, seeding programs that ultimately spread throughout the school.
Data point: Of the 5,000 or so peer leaders College Summit has trained, 79% have enrolled in college.
-- Diana Ransom
San Francisco, California
What: Poverty fighter. One reason the working poor remain poor is that they earn too little to save anything after the bills are paid. EARN provides financial counseling and matching funds to help them open savings accounts.
Who: Executive director Ben Mangan, 34, grew up on welfare in public housing. "I've experienced the same challenges as the people we work with, so I understand the assets issue on a personal level," he says. He consulted with Ernst & Young after college, got a master's in public policy, then did the dotcom thing before joining EARN.
How: Mangan believes assets are a more lasting fix to poverty than higher incomes. Individuals invest up to $6,000 in an Independent Development Account (IDA) -- each dollar matched both by EARN and by federal monies -- to build equity against mortgages, small-business financing, or education loans. EARN works in San Francisco, but it aims at national policy reform. Mangan's goal: To make IDAs "as standard for the working poor as 401(k)s are for the middle class."
Data point: Thirty-three people so far have used funds from their EARN IDAs; their $100,000 of savings has yielded $2.5 million in leveraged capital.
-- Fiona Haley
= repeat winner