by Bob Lupton
The face of missions is on the verge of a dramatic change. For centuries, mission work was primarily about saving souls and planting churches. A “sea change” took place when Muhammad Yunus introduced micro-lending into the under-developed world, opening the way for the mission industry to begin addressing physical poverty.
Another “sea change” is now upon us, one that promises to eclipse micro-enterprise in both scale and impact. Impact Investing is a new wave of philanthropy that is introducing substantial investment capital into wealth-producing small-medium enterprises (SME), as well as larger scale community enhancing businesses. In 2015, assets deployed in impact related investments totaled $60 billion. That number is forecasted to grow to between $600 billion and $3 trillion over the next 10 years. This triple bottom line approach to investing in for-profit business creation has the capacity to elevate struggling communities – and entire regions – from surviving to thriving.
The following is a brief description of the traditional single-issue mission approach (SIM) (such as church planting, well-drilling, orphanages, etc.) as compared to the budding paradigm of holistic community economic development (CED) that has the capacity to transform entire communities. Though perhaps over-generalized, it does highlight the distinctive differences between two very different approaches to serving the poor.
Single-issue Mission (SIM) (such as micro-loans or health clinics) focuses on the needs of individuals and/or individual families. It measures success by the impact of specific programs on the target population (ie: number of loans placed, number of wells drilled, number of patients treated).
Community Economic Development (CED) focuses on the well-being of the entire community and measures success by improvements to the whole community. CED gathers baseline data on the existing state-of-the-community, establishes priorities for growth with the community, identifies community assets and capacities, connects the community to external resources, and measures progress on the overall vitality and growth of the community. (Index for Thriving Communities)
SIM leads with meeting an obvious need. SIM is most often service oriented and addresses pressing needs, but does little to strengthen the local economy. Those who engage in micro-lending (small business loans to peasants) do enable micro-entrepreneurs to survive at a somewhat higher economic level, but seldom do micro-loans lead to wealth-creating enterprises (SME). Micro-lending enables people to survive but not thrive.
CED leads with economic initiatives. The creation of profitable Small-Medium Enterprises (SME) requires scale (multiple employees) and thus leads to wealth creation in a community. They increase the “missing middle” – the skilled management class that is virtually non-existent in under-developed countries. SME also spawns ancillary businesses that improve the economic life of the surrounding community. SME leads to thriving, not merely surviving.
SIM usually begins with a specific need and specializes in a particular issue (medical, water, evangelism). These programs may over time expand into related issues, but they seldom make the shift to sustainable economic enterprise. While they improve certain aspects of life, their programs remain dependent upon external support.
CED is holistic (concerned about all the needs of the community) but leads with economic development. CED believes that stable employment and higher wages are essential if a community is to thrive. CED attracts outside capital to launch economic enterprises with the goal of establishing self-sustaining businesses. Impact investors can expect a decent return with a triple bottom line (economic, social, spiritual).
SIM utilizes large numbers of willing (though not necessarily skilled) volunteers to assist in meeting needs. Seldom do volunteers add economic value to the community (some actually undercut local businesses and craftsmen). Volunteer groups provide substantial income for the SIM, though often the work volunteers perform is “make work” and could be better accomplished by indigenous residents.
CED recruits volunteers with specific skills essential to the accomplishment of the mission. Programs draw upon business leaders with professional experience and provide a broad platform for strategic volunteer involvement, particularly as it relates to business development.
SIM can be dependency-producing. Because they rely upon a constant infusion of outside staff, as well as volunteer and financial support, the development of local resident capacities is often neglected. Some programs establish orphanages and schools, but they rarely provide marketable skill development that enables graduates to prosper in the local economy.
CED provides training platforms and marketable skill development in business settings for local workforce. CED is committed to indigenous leadership development that leads to self-sustaining enterprises which are not ultimately dependent upon outside support. Teaching residents to fish is only the beginning; owning the pond is key to a flourishing community.
SIM tends to be competitive and often works in isolation from other (competing) organizations. Marketing a single-issue mission as the most needed, most effective, and most transformative solution to poverty positions it as a competitor to other poverty programs. Though this strategy may be an effective fund raising method, it does feed into the competitive nature of the SIM industry.
CED requires collaborative relationships with a broad range of organizations (even government) because their mission is holistic. CED involves the community in multifaceted strategic planning (roads to access markets, electricity for homes, water systems for crop irrigation). Because community transformation is a complex undertaking, it is necessary to establish collaborative partnerships with organizations who can be complementary contributors to a range of community goals.
SIM may unintentionally fracture the Body of Christ. Church planting efforts recruit members from the community and from other churches (competitive model that fragments people of faith). SIM is often church affiliated (or theologically aligned) with an implicit agenda to promote their brand of faith.
CED encourages churches working together in the community (cooperative model) to promote unity of body of Christ. CED embraces the whole community regardless of faith orientation and views everyone as neighbors worthy of love. CED may sponsor community chaplains, Young Life, or other spiritual activities while not identifying themselves with one particular church.