The concept of social entrepreneurship, which can be defined as the use of entrepreneurial and innovation principles to promote social change, is not new. It’s been rebranded with a trendy name, but the concept of developing new ways to solve social problems has existed for ages as a key mechanism to promoting social justice.
In New Testament times, social entrepreneurship was key to the spread of the gospel and social justice in the early church in the Roman Empire. There was no concept of charity to the poor in Roman culture. However, by caring for those in need who were outside of their own families and communities, Christians acted as social innovators. This passage from the Roman Emperor Julian (4th century AD) reflects the power of social innovation in spreading the gospel:
"[Christianity] has been specially advanced through the loving service rendered to strangers, and through their care for the burial of the dead. It is a scandal ... that the ... Galileans care not only for their own poor but for ours as well; while those who belong to us look in vain for the help that we should render them.”
Social entrepreneurship in more recent times (i.e., 19th century) includes the establishment of charitable organizations such as hospitals and orphanages by churches. These charities formed the foundation for today’s nonprofit sector in the United States. Christians were also very active in the abolition of slavery, and then later in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
So why aren’t more Christians prominent in today’s social entrepreneurship movement? Especially when the concept of social justice is biblical, and social entrepreneurship has served and continues to serve as a key method to promote social justice?
There is no question that Christians are well-represented in the entrepreneurial community — a study from Baylor University found that entrepreneurs tend to be more likely to believe that God is personally responsive to them than others. However, when the authors of the study were asked if the entrepreneurs’ faith explained the growing interest in social entrepreneurship, they replied that most entrepreneurs were generally motivated because they wanted to work for themselves and to earn a good living; it was not about creating a social impact.
This general lack of interest by evangelical Christians in social entrepreneurship is also reflected by my own observations. When I lived in Silicon Valley, I noticed that few Christians were familiar with the concept of social justice. If Christians in the most entrepreneurial region of the world don't know what social justice is, then it’s not surprising that evangelical Christians aren’t really taking the lead in social entrepreneurship.
To address this lack of awareness, social entrepreneurship could serve as an easy entry point for entrepreneurs into the realm of social justice because social entrepreneurship encourages people to think about sustainability from several angles, including financial, social, and environmental — which are often called the “triple bottom line.” Social entrepreneurship could conceptually be one way to redeem and harness market-driven mechanisms for social good, and encourage the private sector, which has the capital, to collaborate more deeply with the nonprofit sector, which has the keen understanding of social problems.
So in practical terms, if Christians want to get involved in social entrepreneurship, where can they start? My personal response within my own Christian community in Washington, DC is the Idea Catalyst, a volunteer initiative I started to provide early-stage Christian social entrepreneurs with access to a community of advisors to help bring their ideas to life. I noticed my friends had ideas to create social impact, but seemed hesitant to actually operationalize them. This lack of action is often due to a combination of a fear of failure and analysis paralysis, as well as a lack of an “innovation ecosystem” within our faith community to support a culture of entrepreneurship. I realized my friends needed a safe community to help nurture and bring their ideas to life.
The Idea Catalyst brings volunteer advisors together to provide feedback to help budding Christian social entrepreneurs get over their initial hesitations and challenges. This model may not be what your community needs, so here are general suggestions to engage social entrepreneurship and/or mobilize your own faith community:
- Get involved — develop your own idea to meet a social need, or support someone else’s idea by donating your skill set or money to their idea. Not everyone is an entrepreneur, so assess your skills, appetite for risk, and vocation, and see where you fit in the social innovation ecosystem.
- Be an “intrapreneur” — even if you are not an entrepreneur, you can employ entrepreneurial principles to create change within an institution.
- Don’t embrace social innovation just for the sake of innovation — make sure the idea is truly meeting a need and not just a solution looking for a problem. Understand the community you are trying to serve.
- Assess the barriers to social entrepreneurship in your community (i.e., lack of interest, lack of awareness, lack of capital, lack of expertise, etc.), and find suitable solutions to address those barriers, i.e., seminars/panel discussions on social entrepreneurship, mentoring, business plan competitions, venture philanthropy / seed funding, etc.
- Have fun!
Nancy Chan is founder of the Idea Catalyst, which provides Christian social entrepreneurs in Washington, DC access to a community of advisors to help bring their ideas to life. As her day job, she is an associate director at Arabella Advisors, a philanthropy consulting/strategic advisory services firm. She has also worked in faith communities, including as a campus minister at Georgetown University through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship / The Navigators, and as a board member with Little Lights Urban Ministries. This post reflects Chan's personal views and does not reflect the views of Arabella.