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

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