Social Entrepreneurship: Seeking profits for a higher purpose

By John W. Coleman

social-entrepreneurYou might call it “doing well while doing good.” Or elevating the bottom line. Or combining higher purpose with higher profits. Or arguably, “Christian capitalism.”

What is it? “Social Entrepreneurship.” It’s not a new concept but one that more churches are exploring today in their mission to creatively serve communities and ultimately perhaps, to change the world.

It could be defined as adding an innovative, risk-taking, revenue-generating business enterprise to a non-profit, even religious, agency or organization for the purpose of effectively addressing a social need or problem.

Non-profits are facing dire challenges to their survival. The outcomes of the recent U.S. national elections are unlikely to change that, as federal and state funding for anti-poverty efforts will continue to shrink, while poverty-driven needs expand. The eroding public distrust in social institutions, including non-profits and even churches, also incites more challenges to their tax-exempt status.

Thus, non-profits are having to become more entrepreneurial to survive and grow, and more are finding creative ways to do so. That includes starting small businesses to employ low-income and hard-to-hire workers or to provide environmentally healthy products and services to businesses and institutions for the sake of the planet.  Yet, serving humanity must remain their bottom line to maintain their core mission and their non-profit and tax-exempt status.

Kingdom-building through social entrepreneurship

It’s a delicate balance, but it can reap solid benefits for all concerned. So shouldn’t churches try to get in on that action? And how can they? Church visionary Reggie McNeal, who taught at Hopewell UMC’s recent Planting Seeds for Ministry Growth seminar, shared examples of churches doing social entrepreneurship–starting coffee shops, antique stores, affordable housing initiatives and so on–not only to employ workers but also to uplift the communities they are serving.

He taught that churches should be doing outwardly-focused Kingdom-building by helping people experience the abundant life Christ offers and thus working to save the world. Indeed, he said he now asks churches about their pursuit of at least one worldly goal: “How many jobs have you created for people in your community?” The implication is that more churches should be finding ways to create needed jobs, housing, health services, educational opportunities and other socio-economic necessities for the communities they are called to serve.

The best way to do that–maybe the only way–is to develop an informed social entrepreneurship orientation and practice. Indeed, there are a lot of careful steps to be taken and potential pitfalls and liabilities to watch out for. But isn’t that true of any bold ministry venture, especially one devised to address a social problem?

Jeffrey A. Robinson, Ph.D.Jeffrey A. Robinson, Ph.D., an expert in social entrepreneurship, says it “uses some of the best aspects of capitalism as an approach to address social problems and environmental challenges” (“Five Things You Should Know about Social Entrepreneurship”). Or it’s “social problem-solving using a business and enterprise approach.” For some who do want to combine purpose with profits, he writes, it calls for having “double or triple bottom-line thinking.”

Robinson is a leading faculty member of Rutgers University Business School and Senior Fellow at its Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, a unique venue for innovative research and strategizing on entrepreneurial activity and economic development in urban environments. His award-winning research explores how business practices and entrepreneurship can be used to impact societal issues, particularly through community and economic development.

Clergy members of the Eastern PA Conference will get to hear Robinson’s take on Social Entrepreneurship or “SE” as a challenging but potentially transformative ministry model for churches on Wednesday, Nov. 16, at Innabah Camp & Retreat Center. He’ll offer a primer to explain the process, potential, and possible pitfalls of SE, especially for churches that want to bring creative, sustainable solutions to critical human needs in struggling communities.

All clergy and pastoral ministry candidates—elders, deacons and local pastors–are urged to attend the half-day session and then stay and split up into their status groups for one-hour retreat gatherings over lunch.

About 65 clergy have registered for the event so far, but there’s room for a few more. So if you have not yet registered, please do so now. Don’t miss this chance to learn an innovative approach to doing community ministry that can improve and transform lives through Social Entrepreneurship.