Why Aren’t There More Religious Social Entrepreneurs?

Social entrepreneurship is touted today as a more effective way to lift people from poverty than old-style charity. From CEOs of major corporations to energetic startups, mixing entrepreneurship with social improvement is getting lots of talk.

I heard a plea recently for non-profits, in this case religious organizations, to become more entrepreneurial. It’s an interesting proposal, one that deserves more examination.

Why aren’t there more social entrepreneurs in religious groups, more specifically, among those mainline groups where I spend most of my time? If entrepreneurship is, in fact, more likely to lift people from poverty, it would seem people would be rushing to embrace the concept. But they aren’t. Many are resisting.


There are as many reasons as there are resisters, I imagine. High on the list are contrasting values. Benevolence is different from profit-making. One is about giving freely, the other is about making profit. This fundamental difference cannot be easily bridged. A few have done so, but it’s not a natural reach. Even when those who profit are the poor themselves, it’s difficult for benevolent minds to appropriate marketing and charging the poor, who are already victims of economic exploitation or others not so poor, fees for services or products.

The current issue of Sojourners offers the text of a letter by famed Roman Catholic social activist Dorothy Day that illustrates. Writing to New York city officials after they took a building used by Day’s Catholic Worker movement and offerred payment with interest, Day sent the check back with a letter explaining, We do not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a materialistic view of human service wish to make a profit but we are trying to do our duty by our service without wages to our brothers [and sisters] as Jesus commended in the gospel (Matthew 25).”

For Day the question of profiting from the poor or the not poor is answered biblically and the answer is “no.”

But for others the issue isn’t resolved. The selling of bednets to prevent malaria rather than freely distributing them is only one example of a recent difference in approach. The claim is made that people will better use and maintain nets if they’ve paid for them.

An even more important venture is economic empowerment through micro-lending. It is demonstrating that the bridge can be built, especially after the growing success of the Grameen Bank and Mohammad Yunus. This form of social entrepreneurship is finding widespread acceptance among religious groups, as is fair trade.

But if the biblical injunction is interpreted as prohibition against all profit, it’s difficult to build the bridge and a second principle comes into play, as Day points out. Not only is profit counter-cultural, people who work in these groups usually see their work as a vocation. They are giving of themselves to make a contribution to the larger mission. A vocational commitment gives higher meaning to work than profiting from it. Some may even be seeking escape from the profit sector. This vocational commitment reinforces benevolent values and actively prevents a culture of entrepreneurship.

I often muse that if they were entrepreneurs, staff of many of these religious organizations would not come to work in the organization in the first place. That’s not who they are nor why they want to do the work they feel called to do. This is not exactly a breeding ground for entrepreneurial ventures.

And that leads to third obvious consideration. The entrepreneurial skills and motivation to profit aren’t present in these organizations. And it’s not only because the mission of the organization isn’t entrepreneurial, it’s also because these organizations aren’t structured for entrepreneurship. Program officers are separated from fund-raising, and often regard it as a necessary evil even if it pays their salaries and funds their programs. This is structural. Many voluntary, benevolent organizations are structured so that entrepreneurship is not possible.

I’ve witnessed this tension throughout a thirty-year experience working in the non-profit sector. Even the word “marketing” is suspect among some. It represents exploitation and selling out to values that are less than the self-giving benevolence that we all should hold dear. Can a religion remain above the consumerism that mis-shapes life toward material ends if it presents itself as yet another competing commodity within that culture?

I’ve seen revulsion of marketing take extreme form. I’ve had sharp discussions with program officers who did not want to tell important stories because they felt that merely informing donors about human need risked exploiting those in need. This is obviously an important proscription and it should be considered sensitively. I always argue that communicating with sensitivity and respect avoids exploitation, and I don’t subscribe to the most blatant examples of advertising that exploit images of people made weak by hunger and deprivation. Images of malnourished children with flies in their eyes, and often in comatose state, are exploitative and I’ve avoided them. There are other ways to tell the story of hunger.

But not telling the story is not only organizational suicide, it’s irresponsible. People facing life-or-death struggles in poverty conditions lack the voice to gain attention. They are among the most vulnerable and powerless of the world’s peoples. Forgotten and exploited, they benefit from partners who share power with them and also assist them to find and express their own voices. One important function of storytelling is to help people find their voice. It can legitimate their stories and provide access to others so they can be heard.

Broadly defined that’s marketing and communication. Each is legitimate and enables community empowerment. Both should be used by all who seek social change, not sublimated by misplaced values that denigrate them.

So I come down in a middle position that neither rejects nor places ultimate faith in these disciplines apart from values that keep them in check. But I’m more favorable than opposed.

In fact, I share the belief that we should be benevolent, especially we who live in a materially blessed society as the United States. We should also feel responsibility for others who live under less blessed conditions. And we should willingly give up some of what we have so they can have a better life.

In a global culture that is increasingly profit-driven, the challenge to benevolent souls is how to survive and achieve justice for those left out, exploited or abandoned. Benevolence is far from dead. But it’s also not the only way to create change today. It’s being challenged. And it must rise the challenge or become marginalized itself.

I’d like to see more conversation about religious social entrepreneurs in mainline traditions and I’ll write more later.

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