Why Are Social Enterprises Key to Fulfilling Jesus’s Mission?

Jesus gave the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 to the Church as its mission, but that mission is different from His personal mission. What was His personal mission? We find it in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to preach the Gospel, proclaim good news to the poor, release captives, give recovery of sight to the blind, set free those who are oppressed, and proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.” Jesus’s mission was practical.

Thus, even as Christians proclaim the Gospel, they must also honor Jesus’s personal mission. In Africa, they have done so by investing in education, health, potable water, food security, sanitation, and disaster relief, among other things. Often, this ministry happens through faith-based organizations (FBOs) – grassroots ministries that honor Jesus by seeking to solve local problems.

Early in my career, I trained as an accountant. I took a job with International Needs Ghana (INGH), a Christian nonprofit focused on health, education, and justice for children and women. I planned to return to the corporate world after two years, but when I saw INGH’s impact on families, I chose to remain. So I have seen firsthand how, in Africa, FBOs can help to fulfill Jesus’s personal mission. INGH proclaims the Gospel by giving Bibles to children who otherwise would not have one at home. It helps to free captives by fighting sex trafficking. It helps to prevent illness by teaching women and children about good hygiene. It helps to release those imprisoned by poverty by teaching vocational skills.

At INGH, I also gained experience with a pressing challenge facing African FBOs. For many decades, African FBOs received most of their funding from the West. But this situation is changing. FBOs must learn how to support themselves independently if they are to continue to fulfill Christ’s personal mission on a continent where that is desperately needed. This problem inspired me to begin PhD studies so that I could seek solutions. The solution I have found is the faith-based social enterprise: not an alternative to FBOs, but a new kind of program FBOs can establish to help support themselves.

Why Are African FBOs in Crisis?

In the 21st century, funding for Majority World FBOs has narrowed considerably. Reasons include dwindling Christian influence in the West; donor fatigue; and Europe’s refugee influx, which has diverted resources from global to local concerns. In addition, some donors see Africa as more prosperous. Ghana recently discovered oil in commercial quantities; the resulting economic growth means that donors no longer believe that Ghana needs assistance. Yet the Ghanaian government has not invested in roads, education, and other aspects of infrastructure.

Even as Westerners are withdrawing from the Majority World, FBOs run by Majority World nationals – such Oasis Africa, led by Gladys Mwiti, and the Congo Initiative, led by David Kasali – have grown. Oasis Africa began with psychosocial services in Kenya and now has 25 therapists and a children’s center; the Congo Initiative includes a Christian university, an elementary school, a counseling center, and a research institute. (Like me, Gladys Mwiti and David Kasali received SCHOLARLEADERS LeaderStudies funding for their PhDs.)

Furthermore, the fundraising environment has become very competitive. A few years ago, I went to the U.K. to raise funds for INGH. One of my activities was to walk across London’s bridges. I saw at least seven other charities all undertaking separate but similar fundraising activities – including one group of people running around dressed as gorillas.

Onto this competitive fundraising environment, COVID has fallen like a bomb. Addressing the health crisis, its economic implications, and its political consequences has brought the world to its knees. Nonprofits everywhere are clamoring for funding in a situation that has constrained many people’s ability to give because of lost jobs and inflation; those of us used to traveling to raise funds can no longer do so.

Because of these factors, African FBOs more than ever need to think about how to support themselves if they are to continue to fulfill Jesus’s personal mission.

 

How Can Social Enterprises Address the Crisis?

During my research, the most promising alternative I have found is social enterprises. A social enterprise is a business that tackles a community problem, so social enterprises are hybrids that combine non-profit and for-profit missions. This is not a new concept, but African FBOs need to embrace social enterprises more widely if they are to survive the funding crisis. Traditionally, social enterprises have been seen as opposed to FBOs: FBOs view themselves as charities, giving freely to their communities, whereas social enterprises are for-profit (and therefore perhaps seen as “less virtuous”). Yet FBOs need to find multiple ways to survive and be fruitful despite a lack of donors, and social enterprises can be one among many beneficial new directions for generating support.

In fact, social enterprises provide more than financial stability, as desperately as that is needed. They can also help their parent FBO to fulfill its original mission. They incorporate three goals: social good, financial stability, and faith. Perhaps a local church decides to operate a community center from its building during the week so that the rent paid by the town can cover the pastor’s salary. Or perhaps a nonprofit offers small, low-interest loans to the vulnerable so that they can start their own businesses. In each case, the social enterprise both addresses a social need and Christ’s personal mission.

At the same time, social enterprises run by FBOs face unique challenges because they must balance business savvy with ministry objectives. Do you charge full price for your market garden’s vegetables? Or do you reduce rates or even give food away for free because you’re a ministry? FBOs must work through these questions carefully to achieve a wise balance that can allow them to be financially viable and prioritize Kingdom blessing for their communities.

INGH started a social enterprise about 3 years ago: a school. It gives Christ-centered education to over 700 children. The school fulfills the “faith-based” part of its mission by teaching God’s story through themes: Creation Enjoying, God Worshipping, Beauty Creating, Order Discovering, Justice Seeking, etc. These themes weave throughout every unit of every subject so that children learn to see themselves – their relationships, their families, their friendships, their work – in light of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. This explicitly theological framework structures the school’s curriculum so that God’s truth is not limited to morning prayer but appears everywhere, shaping children’s hearts by Jesus’s good news. Thus, the school helps to fulfill INGH’s original purpose, while at the same time, student fees help to support INGH.

Of course, COVID-19 has negatively impacted social enterprises, including INGH’s school. At the start of the pandemic, Ghana’s government closed schools. This meant a sharp decline in our tuition intake, while our fixed costs – teacher salaries, building maintenance, utilities – remained the same. Even in this crisis, though, we see opportunities. While schools were closed, we held reading clinics in children’s neighbourhoods to mitigate the effects of children not being able to travel to school, and we used those sessions to distribute masks and hand sanitizer.

Conclusion

Social enterprises are not a “magical solution” for FBOs in crisis. FBOs must choose business models that reflect their existing values, can be sustained by their staff, fit their systems, and actually meet their community’s needs. Social enterprises need to be carefully considered and carried out if they are to be a benefit, rather than a burden, to their parent FBO.

Yet, if wisely executed, social enterprises can doubly fulfil Jesus’s mission. In and of themselves, they give practical help to their communities; in addition, they allow FBOs to be good stewards of their finances long-term – and thereby to continue to “set free the oppressed” in their other programs. A social enterprise can create jobs for people who would otherwise be left out, reinvest profits in community projects, and provide services for people who might not get them.

Indeed, a social enterprise can answer the Great Commission also. Through relationships built as people work together day-by-day, social enterprises open doors for Christian witness. They can thus help African FBOs to “proclaim good news to the poor,” body and soul.

Edmond Vanderpuye

Edmond Vanderpuye is currently pursuing his PhD in Theology and Development at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (U.K.) with a LeaderStudies scholarship. As Executive Director of International Needs Ghana, a holistic development ministry, Edmond is researching sustainable models for Christian social enterprise.

Similar Posts