Donors vs. Owners in ‘Business as Mission’ (and Beyond)
Religion & Liberty Online

Donors vs. Owners in ‘Business as Mission’ (and Beyond)

“Do economic incentives help or hinder ‘business as mission’ (BAM) practitioners?” In a forthcoming study, Dr. Steven Rundle of Biola University explores the question through empirical research.

Unsatisfied with the evidence thus far, consisting mostly of case studies and anecdotes, Rundle conducted an anonymous survey of 119 “business as mission” practitioners, focusing on a variety of factors, including (1) “the source of their salary (does it come from the revenues of the business or from donors?),” and (2) “the outcomes of the business in terms of the four ‘bottom lines’ of economic, social, environmental and spiritual impact.”

The reason for focusing on such areas? “Many people in the ministry/missions world believe that donor support helps ensure that practitioners stay focused on the ministry goals.”

Rundle summarizes his findings as follows:

This study essentially found the exact opposite. It found that practitioners who are fully supported by the business tend to out-perform – sometimes significantly – donor-supported BAM practitioners, and are no less fruitful in terms of spiritual impact. This finding holds up even after controlling for things like geography, firm size, and firm type.

…. The moral of the story is that economic incentives matter. Contrary to the mission community’s concern that self-support will take one’s attention away from the ministry goals, the truth is that only by creating a successful business can a practitioner hope to have a meaningful and holistic impact on a community.

Of course, “business as mission” means plenty of different things to plenty of different people, as Rundle duly affirms. Here, however, it may be helpful to pause and consider the reach of such findings. As for Rundle, he bundles BAM as “the idea that businesses can be financially successful while also addressing social problems” and “spiritual needs,” which seems as good and as broad a definition as any.

But though there’s something to be said about being more intentional and thoughtful about bottom-line complexity, particularly from a distinctly Christian perspective, we should be careful that our definitions of such things (“social entrepreneurship,” “business as mission,” etc.) aren’t overly constrained. Plenty of businesses pursue such ends quite organically, as in, without seeking this or that label, or without subscribing to this or that bullet-point manifesto. If our work is fundamentally servant to God and service to the other, the space for addressing “social problems” and “spiritual needs” is strikingly deep and wide and varied.

Staying in step with such a sentiment, and with Rundle’s final conclusion, the implications of his findings reach even farther. That increased ownership over the cultivation and creation of wealth and resources might correspond with increasingly fruitful endeavors is not a revelation we should limit to the realm of business, “missional” or otherwise. What might it imply for the world of fundraising, for example? What might it teach us about furthering the work of missions more broadly, from the soup kitchen to the schoolhouse to the tent meeting revival? There is much here to learn from a “business as mission” perspective, but churches aiming to aid, empower, and send their members would do well to consider this more broadly as well.

I look forward to reading more from Dr. Rundle and am grateful for his interest in exploring these questions with the attention they deserve. The study, “Does Donor Support Help or Hinder BAM Practitioners: An Empirical Assessment,” will be published by International Bulletin of Missionary Research in January 2014.

In the meantime, you can watch the following 24-minute lecture and review the accompanying slides here.

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Joseph Sunde

Joseph Sunde's work has appeared in venues such as the Foundation for Economic Education, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work, as well as on PowerBlog. He resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and four children.