The Accidental Social Entrepreneur - A Review

Social entrepreneurship is the pursuit of business with social benefit as a primary concern rather than simply profit. In some cases, social entrepreneurship relies upon the intended social benefit as the chief marketing point. In the best cases, the entrepreneurs provide a good, needed service at a competitive price, but distribute profits with something other than the bottom line or shareholder value as the primary concern.

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A reasonable profit is a good thing and necessary for a humane economy. Entrepreneurs generally risk their livelihood for their business. Profits allow business to continue, entrepreneurs to feed their families, companies to expand, and more people get jobs that support their families. Poverty will not be ended without business.

In The Accidental Social Entrepreneur, Grant Smith outlines his own life experience as a social entrepreneur. In a memoir-style book, he covers the successes, challenges, and failures he has experienced while running his Hand In Hand company with several faces and outlets. In one of its most significant aspects, Smith’s company became one of the largest home construction entities in Kenya.

Smith recognizes that business is a good thing. When run justly, companies provide opportunities for employees to feed their families. In Smith’s accounting, justice includes remunerating workers in proportion to the value they add to the company rather than as little as the market will allow. So, for example, although unskilled labor is paid near-starvation wages in Kenya, Smith’s construction company chooses to pay a significantly higher wage that ensures greater financial stability for those laborers. It works in this particular application because the profit margins for home construction in Kenya are very high. The difference between the market rate and the rate his company pays is found in the profit taken by the company itself.

For Smith, social entrepreneurship means building businesses that meet legitimate needs at a competitive price, providing a decent (though by no means extravagant) living for workers in proportion to the value they add (he is very big on merit based pay), and using a fair portion of remaining profits to invest in other charitable activities. Investors in Smith’s various schemes get a benefit, but that benefit is limited by other goals that the investors agree to in advance. Smith runs companies, but they are companies that take all stakeholders into account.

The Accidental Social Entrepreneur is an encouraging volume. It celebrates the good of business for creating wealth and freeing people from poverty. It also introduces a paradigm of valuing something besides maximizing profits to the discussion. Smith’s book strikes a healthy balance between recognizing the good of markets and considering the potential harms of markets.

Although he does not state it directly, Smith does seem to lean toward the moral superiority of his company’s practice of redistributing up to 85% of profits to more direct charitable causes. It is commendable that Smith decided to do so, but by no means morally obligatory. In some cases, by choosing to distribute profit rather than reinvest in other ventures, Smith may have made his company’s endeavors more difficult. This is by no means the major emphasis of the book, but more discussion would have been beneficial.

Another helpful aspect of this book is Smith’s honesty about times that his endeavors failed. In some cases, he even admits the mistakes that prevented entrepreneurial efforts from being successful. This adds value to the book, because it shows that the life of the entrepreneur is not necessarily a straight line toward success or failure. Rather, the entrepreneurs should expect ups and downs, successes and failures that hopefully contribute to the general good of society.

Hopefully, The Accidental Social Entrepreneur inspires some readers to take a step toward building a business with society in mind. Even if they take a more profit-oriented approach than Smith, the world will be a better place. Pastors and lay leaders in church would benefit from reading the book. It could shape social endeavors facilitated through the local church.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Radical Help - A Review

Marvin Olasky’s 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, reframed the way many Americans thought about welfare and compassion. Toward the end of the century that promised to bring utopia to the shores of North America through the New Deal and the Great Society, poverty continued to persist and, at times, threatened to upend society. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States invested billions of dollars in government programs, especially those at the federal level, designed to bring an end to poverty for good.

Looking around, many people recognized that the ever-growing network of programs and promises were not having the desired effect. Olasky’s book proved to be a catalyst for many to rethink their expectations for government poverty relief. The basic thesis of his book is that community solutions have been much more effective at poverty alleviation than impersonal government programs. His theory has largely been met with antipathy from progressives, affirmation from many conservatives, and skepticism by many between.

To some, the problem of poverty is too widespread and too significant for local solutions. Person-to-person charitable efforts are well-intentioned and often beneficial, but cannot hope to solve the needs of the poor. That is the argument made by many proponents of the growth of centralized welfare programs. However, it is less clear to many people that expanding existing programs or creating new offerings with the same bureaucratic model can achieve a better outcome.

In her recent book, Radical Help, Hilary Cottam challenges the expansion of centrally planned model of government poverty alleviation. Writing from progressive perspective, Cottam makes an argument that will sound familiar and welcome to conservative ears: The most effective means of poverty alleviation is the development of community.

Determined to do something practical about the problem of poverty, Cottam set to work redesigning portions of the welfare system in the United Kingdom. She challenged the status quo by asking a profound question of workers within a number of social programs: Who has been helped by your social program so that they are no longer enmeshed in the welfare system?

The inability of any program to show a single family that had been freed from the shackles of poverty through the work of the state led Cottam to conclude, “We had hoped for safety nets that would give us the weft and propulsion of a trampoline but instead we are woven into a tight trap.”

Radical Help documents five experiments that Cottam conducted in an attempt to uncover alternative solutions to poverty alleviation. Four of the five have been deemed successes. All five have in common that they rely on the individuals receiving help to drive the change, that the solutions are locally centered, and that they leverage technology as a means to coordinate human connection rather than as a replacement for it.

The first experiment allowed particular families to coordinate the host of poverty alleviation services they required to chart a course out of poverty. Instead of working with a wide range of social workers from a dozen different government programs, the Family Life experiment allowed a family to pick what help they would get, chart their own course, and get the help they needed to actually make it out of poverty. While this program was expensive in the short term, it reduced the long-term costs by getting multiple families in the experiment off the welfare rolls.

The second experiment helped teens find meaning and purpose by putting them into short-term internships in local businesses. These voluntary programs were coordinated using social technologies and gave teens a glimpse of a world outside the local recreation center. Although the program was scuttled due to the perceived risk of coordinating contact between minors and adults, it illustrates the power of a social network.

Experiment #3 replaced the queues of the unemployment office with a small support group filled with employed, underemployed, and unemployed individuals. Rather than seeking the first possible placement, the Good Work program looked for ways to motivate the unmotivated, focus the undirected, and assist the willing to make personal connections to make progress toward a vocation, not merely a job. Cottam notes that the idea of work as merely a means of earning bread is insufficient, which leads many of the unemployed to bounce from one dead end job to another.

The fourth experiment challenged the idea that the best solution to the stress on the National Health Service (NHS) is simply to dump in more money. Cottam rightly notes that the majority of medical spending is used treat chronic diseases like diabetes, which are often caused and exacerbated by lifestyle choices. The bureaucratic systems of the NHS was designed in industrial fashion to deal with punctiliar events like providing pregnancy services, solving medical emergencies, and performing needed surgeries. Cottam created the Wellogram project, which put healthcare professionals in direct and durable contact with people. By listening to people, asking follow up questions, and getting to know them, the healthcare professionals were able to help people improve their overall health, which in turn reduced their need for expensive medical interventions over a sustained period.

Cottam’s final experiment was designed to serve the aged. Her team created the Circle program, which she describes as “part social club, part concierge service, and part cooperative self-help group.” The basic function of the program was to break down the isolation in communities by putting people, particularly the elderly, in contact with others with similar interests. It also enabled willing volunteers to help their hidden neighbors by doing small things, like picking up groceries; there are many willing people who simply lacked the personal connections to perform these simple services for others. The Circle program used a basic technological platform to help people to help other people––technology was a means to the desired end, not the solution to the problem.

Each of the programs listed above used grants from the government, but relied on localized implementations to create contextual solutions to pervasive dehumanization caused by relational poverty. Cottam’s approach reminds us that we were designed for community, and those programs that encourage personal relationships tend to enhance flourishing in ways that a blank check never will. The goal was not to eliminate all government action for the poor, but to leverage government resources efficiently to accomplish the intended purpose.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that America’s welfare system is ineffective in winning the war on poverty, Cottam’s approach of innovating local solutions with a relational focus may provide a way forward for those who genuinely desire to help the poor, but recognize the devastating social impact of impersonal bureaucratic poverty alleviation strategies.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Becoming Whole - A Review

A decade ago, When Helping Hurts released and began a paradigm shift in how evangelicals viewed poverty alleviation. So much of our vision of missions previously included doing work for the poor, especially in the developing world, and sending money and goods to developing nations.

The outcome of that vision, long term, has been less than helpful. In some cases, foreign aid has pushed out local commerce. The excess rice shipped from nations (like the US) with bumper crops (and often as a means for the government to prop up prices in the US market) were given or sold at a low price, often undercutting the markets for local grains. This means that aid has pushed local farmers in some developing nations out of the market and prevented them from being able to support themselves and uproots local markets that support dozens of people. The same story is true for textile donations (think the Super Bowl loser’s shirts), which have damaged the economy in several developing nations.

On balance, many of the ways that we’ve believed we were helping people through charity have been hurting them. This revelation shocked many faithful Christians who, with the best intentions, were harming more than hurting. Brian Fikkert, along with other people associated with the Chalmers Center at Covenant College, have since been trying to show how real help can be offered. Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream is a recent entry in the conversation of how to help people in meaningful ways.

As the authors note in this preface, “This book provides a more systematic treatment of the underlying concepts and principles foundational to W[hen] H[elping] H[urts].” (pg 15) That is exactly the tone and content of the volume. If When Helping Hurts is the wake-up call to stop doing charity wrong, Becoming Whole is the theological basis that explains why aid does not work as a long-term response to poverty and the framework for a more positive vision for actually helping those in poverty. This is a volume that does a great deal more for building a foundation of ideas, but always with the view that the reader can take many of the ideas explained in the book and begin to apply them carefully on their own.

Summary

The bulk of this book is a plea for readers to understand an communicate a better story. The opposite of poverty is not consumption. The opposite of poverty is flourishing in a biblical framework. There is no question that having money and other resources are essential in alleviating the worst symptoms of human suffering, but an excess of such resources do not ensure a greater degree of happiness. For Fikkert and Kapic, true flourishing is found in living out the storyline of the gospel. As they summarize the message of the book: “there is a better life than the one you are currently living, a life of greater flourishing for both you and for people who are materially poor.” (pg. 15)

Part One of this volume calls readers to seek a new, better story; one framed around the gospel of Christ. It then argues for the primacy of human relationships, particularly loving ones, in human flourishing, and laying out a picture of how the focus of individuals and cultures shapes them.

In Part Two, the authors take on two false stories that continue to dog the steps of many Christians (even theologically conservative ones) in the majority world: (1) The trap of consumption and viewing consumption as a pathway to flourishing, and (2) the gnostic and pseudo-gnostic worldviews that undermine the value of the body and the eternal significance of physical aid. These errors drive a lot of the dis-ease in the pews of American evangelical churches and also frame much of the errant attempts at charity in and around the local church.

Part Three offers unpacks a biblical theology of human flourishing, which is mixed with insights about common American attitudes to poverty. This section is relevant to the conversations that go on in many of our Sunday Schools, around our potlucks, and in our homes. There is nothing new theologically in this section, but Kapic and Fikkert have presented it in a way that makes biblical theology obviously valuable to the reader.

Conclusion

Becoming Whole is an excellent tool to get people inside the local church to rethink poverty alleviation and, en route to that reconsideration, to think about the value structures in their own lives. I have read dozens of books on poverty and the American dream in my studies of wealth and poverty, environmental ethics, and the like. I did not want to put this book down. Each page offered new ways of explaining Christian theology in a way that is relevant to people in a dominant culture that is both gnostic and excessively materialistic.

This is volume that, along with When Helping Hearts and Practicing the King’s Economy, ministry leaders should read as they seek to form people and outline a vision for human flourishing among their own congregants and in the world around them.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.