Monks And Money
Listen to “Monks and Money” by Fred Smith
One of my treasures is a framed picture of Peter Drucker, Bob Buford, Tom Luce and myself outside Peter’s house in Estes Park in the early 1990’s. Underneath it, Bob wrote, “The Beginning of the Social Entrepreneur Network.” It was an idea we had been working on for several years and one that was close to Peter’s heart as it combined two of his basic concepts – the value of the entrepreneur as a creative force and the social responsibility that entailed.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because, like the word philanthropy, the phrase “social entrepreneur” has morphed over the years. When we began thinking about it we meant it as a description of men and women who had accumulated wealth and were now putting that wealth into social ventures. They had lots of their own skin in the game when they identified areas of opportunity that would be great challenges for their skills, experience, wealth, and relationships. They were proven entrepreneurs who were simply moving their focus – sometimes completely and sometimes keeping their hand in the business at the same time.
Over time, I’ve seen how that definition has changed and become more inclusive (not a bad thing) but it has also diluted it some. Now a young person starting a nonprofit is deemed a social entrepreneur. I’m not sure how that differs from someone who simply starts another nonprofit. Rarely do they have their own skin in the game. They typically have fine educations from prestigious universities and instead of going into business want to “make a difference” and start a nonprofit.
A recent article titled “Social Entrepreneurship Enters the Mainstream” points out the trend of more and more students pursuing business school degrees for futures in the nonprofit arena – not to own a business. They want to become fellows with Echoing Green with grants for a start-up venture or create business plans for Ashoka to solve social problems. It’s called a degree in social enterprise. I think that is laudable but as one of my friends asked recently, “Whatever happened to creating a business that has economic value and provides jobs and tax revenues for society? What is wrong with generating money from a profit-making enterprise instead of setting up yet another non-profit looking for donations?” He has a strong point, I think. In fact, there are organizations like Praxis who have asked the same question. While starting as an accelerator for primarily non-profits, in 2014 they expanded the for-profit track. So far, they have worked with 112 business ventures and have just announced their new class of business entrepreneurs for 2019. There are a few others, of course, like Y Combinator, Ocean Accelerator, Triga in South Africa and Sinapis in Africa. One of the pioneers in the field of business creation is the Acton School of Business in Austin, Texas. These are good signs of a change.
That said, I read a history of monasticism years ago and one of the insights was monastic movements tend to follow economic surges. In other words, one generation creates wealth and the next generation creates monastic movements. It was true not only for the early years of the Church but also for the explosion of missions in the 19th century. Many of the missionaries were children of wealth. Maybe we are seeing something of the same today. As John Adams said, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” It’s all part of a larger pattern. Ironically, even the monks could not survive without creating businesses and, in fact, became the earliest capitalists in Europe by investing their surplus wealth.
Again, I am encouraged by the desire of this next generation to serve God and the world, but my friend has a point about those who believe creating businesses still has extraordinary (though less glamorous) value for society.