One of the questions that I have had to deal with as I have started my "Youth Ministry that Works" process is, "Why go for-profit?" Many people don't have a clue as to why a minister would start a for-profit company to do social good. The answer is a bit complicated, but I think it is worth a lengthy post.
Very early on in my process I had to decide whether or not my company would be for-profit or non-profit. To be honest, I didn't know much about either and what their advantages and disadvantages would be. The only for-profit experience I had was through my father who mostly worked for larger companies. My non-profit experience had been confined to my church ministry over the last 15 years which is a different and often peculiar beast unto itself.
So I tried to engage a process of research and discernment to make my decision. Here is what it entailed:
-I researched the differences online.
-I spoke with someone in the finance world that has worked both for-profit and non-profit entities.
-I spoke with someone who works with a major grant foundation in the Pacific Northwest and asked her thoughts.
-I spoke with an attorney.
-I read a couple of books.
Here is what I think I learned. First, I learned that each has its own benefits. I won't get into those here, but one of the major hurdles I ran into was that I wanted my enterprise to be faith based and that would immediately cut me off from most non-profit funding. Second, non-profits are expensive to start up and have tons of restrictions surrounding a board of directors etc. They are often unsustainable models without leaning on regular charitable giving.
In the for profit model I was able to start my social enterprise for about $900 in fees for licences etc. That of course does not include my start up equipment. But, for that relatively small amount I had a business up and running, at least in name. My non-profit folks told me that starting a non-profit is much trickier and takes a lot more time. I would also need to assemble a board. Along the way I repeatedly heard that grant writing is a pain in the butt from a number of people who know a whole lot more about it than I do. While my small business friends do complain about how the tax system, I seem to prefer that over constantly having to ask for money. I know that many non-profits make money hand over fist (See: Goodwill). Most do not. They are reliant upon the benevolence of others and I sometimes get tired of that dynamic from working in the church. To put it into crude business terms, the church lives off of cultural subsidies in some ways. This leads to my main conclusion. For-profit, when done with some ethical integrity, encourages harder work and maintains the most dignity for both the giver and the recipient. Dignity.
It is my firm belief that increasingly we are starting to recognize that giving things away often robs the recipient of some of their dignity each time they receive. One of the books that has re-shaped my thinking on the for-profit and non-profit worlds is Robert Upton's, "Toxic Charity". If you haven't read it, you should. I think what we are starting to see that no strings attached giving robs the recipient of a little bit of their dignity each time they receive. I suppose this makes me a bit of a capitalist, but I am okay with that. I think that we are at an intersection in our world where the Iines between the for-profit and non-profit worlds are starting to blur significantly. You can understand this trend in 4 minutes if you watch this clip of my friend Andy Lower presenting on this topic for the Eleos Foundation.
I wanted a company structure that encouraged high accountability amongst my students for the quality of their work. I also wanted one where the customer didn't feel like they were simply giving us money. Instead they were paying a competitive price for a service rendered with a company that was forced to compete with other similar companies. Yet, we were still engaged in a social good. In this way, the customer trades away none of their dignity and my employees feel like the company stands and falls on the quality of their output.
This idea became particularly poignant this past week as someone at my church came up to me and shared about the impact that Mowtown Teen Lawn Care was having on someone in our community who is a customer. The particular customer that we have has a home that they have a great deal of trouble maintaining. Over the years a number of neighbors had begun to pitch in on the home doing occasional clean up. Sometimes they did it out of love and sometimes they did it so their neighborhood looked more presentable. But, over time this person at my church began to sense that their neighbor resented the help, and that because of their particular social anxiety they did not like having their neighborhood in their back yard. They tried hiring local teenagers to do the work every once in a while, but the students lacked the right tools and their work was often sub-par. Further, since the neighbors paid the teens, the customer was still receiving a hand out in a way. And so Mowtown got a call.
What I learned on Sunday from this person at my church was that the customer was overjoyed! They actually enjoy having teenagers in their yard because they know that they are helping those teens to grow and develop. Yet, they are doing so while paying a competitive price which takes no dignity away from them as they receive our services. They are no longer a recipient. In many ways the for profit model levels the power dynamics in a relationship. When done right I might even argue that it is the most humane solution to social issues. Both parties are making their community better while not having the image of God in them diminished. Sadly, many of our charitable works achieve just that sort of diminshment when we are honest with ourselves. One party feels great while the other feels their struggles are only confirmed and underscored by the services rendered free of charge. Please hear that I am not against non-profits and am a firm believer in no strings attached giving when it is done short term and in crisis situations! But overall I prefer the equality of the for-profit model.
Basically what I am trying to do is take smart third world principles for doing the most social good and am applying them to the American Church and to American Youth Ministry. I have begun to wonder how often we rob both our students/congregants, and those they serve, of dignity by our subsidized model of ministry. I say that as someone who is paid by that very model. I think the current ministry model not only robs people of dignity but it produces youth ministries that tend to be low in terms of participatory opportunity and low in terms of the kind of accountability that produces spiritual growth. But, that will be for my next post.
So to put it succinctly: I went for profit.
God bless and keep innovating!