Why Social Entrepreneurs Could Use a Little More Faith

Long before Toms, Kiva, and Warby Parker, churches, synagogues, and mosques have pushed social change, so why so little secular collaboration?

As your average Fast Company subscribing, TED Talks-watching, New York Times reading, SXSW obsessed pop culture junkie, I know a few things about social innovation. Having followed the game-changing efforts of TOMs Shoes, Kiva, Kickstarter and Warby Parker, it's easy to think of social innovation and entrepreneurship as a secular thing. A recent Southern California Faith-Based Social Innovation Forum showed though that when it comes to collaboration with faith-based social entrepreneurs, there's plenty of room for growth.

The forum, held in Los Angeles and co-hosted by Jewish Jumpstart, and Community Partners, was organized on the heels of this summer's White House Faith-Based Social Innovators Conference. Jumpstart co-founder and CEO Shawn Landres attended the White House summit and saw an opportunity to inspire local change. He and fellow White House guest Paul Vandeventer, head of Community Partners, began working on the idea of a regional follow-up.

The L.A. forum sought to answer several big questions. Why the distinction between regular, or secular social innovation and its faith-based cousin if both are focused on doing good works? Are faith-based social innovators at a disadvantage? Who are the major players in the world of faith-based social innovation? Can social innovators work across faith and learn to share best practices?

"Faith-based innovators are creating new products and services, forging strategic and creative partnerships, and leveraging media and technology to extend their reach," says Jonathan Greenblatt, the director of the White House office of social innovation and civic participation. "Their models vary, but these individuals all use innovation to improve their communities."

Social entrepreneurs—both secular and religious—have more in common than they may realize, says Vandeventer. "The values that inform secular civic innovators—loving justice, caring for the disadvantaged, bridging differences—come from same concerns about the condition of the world as those that inform faith-based innovators," he says.

We hear so much about religious discord, but, this forum provided a space for meaningful dialogue among a group of attendees from Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other faith backgrounds. Los Angeles County Board Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas encouraged them to practice "intentional civility" in interreligious engagement and to band together as an interfaith community to ensure that their collective voices are heard.

Najeeba Syeed-Miller, an attorney, former nonprofit executive, and professor of interreligious education at Claremont Lincoln University, led a frank discussion of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and challenges facing faith-based social innovators. The rich cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity of Los Angeles, and a history of successful partnerships between faith communities and local governments have long helped bridge economic and social gaps. The list of challenges is long though.

There’s the usual nonprofit litany—lack of resources, leadership gaps, and inattention to race, ethnicity, and gender. Faith-related obstacles like ignorance about and civic invisibility among minority faith communities, difficulty building cultural mobility for newcomers, and, perhaps most pervasive, the uneven playing field that awaits social innovators who say their ventures are motivated by faith commitments, are also concerns.

"If you have a philosophy of doing good and feel a commitment to give back and leave the world a better place than you found it, if you say all those things in generic terms—that’s fine," said Landres. "But if you say, 'I am part of a covenant or I have a faith or I have a relationship with God, Jesus, Muhammad, or Guru Nanak,' then the exact same words—because they are being attributed to a religious tradition –for some reason that’s not okay." As it turns out, many attendees felt disrespected by the world of secular social enterprise.

Given Syeed-Miller’s definition of social entrepreneurship as large-scale social transformations targeting those who are economically and politically disadvantaged, it's easily rgued that the church—or synagogue or mosque or congregation—is the original catalyst for social entrepreneurship. After all, congregations and other organizations with religious roots have been tasked with finding creative solutions to society’s social needs for millennia.

Therein lies the paradox: If it's universally understood that social innovation and entrepreneurship are driven by intent to do good works—and it’s universally understood that faith drives intent to do good works—then why is the playing field for faith-based social innovators versus secular social innovators so uneven?

Forum attendees said they welcome the opportunity to learn about successful collaborations and explore new relationships. "Language, ideology and high thresholds…can divide us as long as we want them to," said Vandeventer. "But this gathering represented a whole lot of people lowering barriers rather than raising them."

Photo of Najeeba Syeed-Miller courtesy of Sherry Etheredge

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less