From Martin Luther to Social Enterprise

The case for applying profit to create social benefit has long been argued. Longer than one might imagine, when we look back to Martin Luther:

“If silver and gold are things evil in themselves, then those who keep away from them deserve to be praised. But if they are good creatures of God, which we can use both for the needs of our neighbor and for the glory of God, is not a person silly, yes, even unthankful to God, if he refrains from them as though they were evil? For they are not evil, even though they have been subjected to vanity and evil. …If God has given you wealth, give thanks to God, and see that you make right use of it…”

(Martin Luther “Lectures on Genesis”)

How remarkable that 500 years on, we still find disagreement between not-for-profit and for-profit approaches to social benefit. Even the Vatican has joined in.

In 1996, with a position paper for what would become know as for-benefit or fourth sector business, founder Terry Hallman argued the case for people-centered economics:

“The P-CED concept is to create new businesses that do things differently from their inception, and perhaps modify existing businesses that want to do it. This business model entails doing exactly the same things by which any business is set up and conducted in the free-market system of economics. The only difference is this: that at least fifty percent of profits go to stimulate a given local economy, instead of going to private hands. In effect, the business would operate in much the same manner as a charitable, non-profit organization whose proceeds go to local, national, and international charities. Non-profits, however, are typically very restricted in the type of business they can conduct. In the United States, all non-profits must constantly pay heed that they are not violating those restrictions, lest they suffer the wrath of the Internal Revenue Service. For-profits, on the other hand, have a relatively free hand when it comes to doing business. The only restrictions are the normal terms and conditions of free-enterprise. If a corporation wants to donate to its local community, it can do so, be it one percent, five percent, fifty or even seventy percent. There is no one to protest or dictate otherwise, except a board of directors and stockholders. This is not a small consideration, since most boards and stockholders would object. But, if an a priori arrangement has been made with said stockholders and directors such that this direction of profits is entirely the point, then no objection can emerge. Indeed, the corporate charter can require that these monies be directed into community development funds, such as a permanent, irrevocable trust fund. The trust fund, in turn, would be under the oversight of a board of directors made up of corporate employees and community leaders.”

Interviewed in 2004 about his work in Crimea, Hallman said:

“At first, the idea seemed heresy — but not for long, simply because it made sense and it didn’t step on the toes of any existing enterprises that were in business to enrich relatively few people. None of them were asked to change anything, but it left open the possibility of more forward-thinking people to step in and do business differently. Even now, I am astonished that the idea struck such a deep and sympathetic chord in so many people so quickly — especially in our top business schools, where one might have thought that they were all in it for the money, for personal wealth, with little regard to social benefit or the poorest of the poor.”

It was introduced to UK government and the social enterprise community in 2004, with a strategy plan to tackle poverty:

“Profits can be set aside in part to address social needs, and often have been by way of small percentages of annual profits set aside for charitable and philanthropic causes by corporations. This need not necessarily be a small percentage. In fact, there is no reason why an enterprise cannot exist for the primary purpose of generating profit for social needs — i.e., a P-CED, or social, enterprise. This was seen to be the potential solution toward correcting the traditional model of capitalism, even if only in small-scale enterprises on an experimental basis.”

“Traditional capitalism is an insufficient economic model allowing monetary outcomes as the bottom line with little regard to social needs. Bottom line must be taken one step further by at least some companies, past profit, to people. How profits are used is equally as important as of profits. Where profits can be brought to bear by willing individuals and companies to social benefit, so much the better. Moreover, this activity must be recognized and supported at government policy level as a badly needed, essential, and entirely legitimate enterprise activity.”

I was astonished in 2009, to read the following in the Vatican encyclical — Caritas in Veritate:

“The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them.”

This was the relevant passage:

“Striving to meet the deepest moral needs of the person also has important and beneficial repercussions at the level of economics. The economy needs ethics in order to function correctly — not any ethics whatsoever, but an ethics which is people-centred.”

“This is not merely a matter of a “third sector”, but of a broad new composite reality embracing the private and public spheres, one which does not exclude profit, but instead considers it a means for achieving human and social ends. Whether such companies distribute dividends or not, whether their juridical structure corresponds to one or other of the established forms, becomes secondary in relation to their willingness to view profit as a means of achieving the goal of a more humane market and society. “

“The strengthening of different types of businesses, especially those capable of viewing profit as a means for achieving the goal of a more humane market and society, must also be pursued in those countries that are excluded or marginalized from the influential circles of the global economy. In these countries it is very important to move ahead with projects based on subsidiarity, suitably planned and managed, aimed at affirming rights yet also providing for the assumption of corresponding responsibilities. In development programmes, the principle of the centrality of the human person, as the subject primarily responsible for development, must be preserved. The principal concern must be to improve the actual living conditions of the people in a given region, thus enabling them to carry out those duties which their poverty does not presently allow them to fulfil. “

Soon after a Sandanistan priest at the UN, made this comment:

“The anti-values of greed, individualism and exclusion should be replaced by solidarity, common good and inclusion. The objective of our economic and social activity should not be the limitless, endless, mindless accumulation of wealth in a profit-centred economy but rather a people-centred economy that guarantees human needs, human rights, and human security, as well as conserves life on earth. These should be universal values that underpin our ethical and moral responsibility.”

(Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the President of the United Nations General Assembly speaking in 2009)

In 2007, the ‘Marshall Plan’ for Ukraine had made this assertion:

“Profits can be directly applied to help resolve a broad range of social problems: poverty relief, improving childcare, seeding scientific research for nationwide economic advancement, improving communications infrastructure and accessibility, for examples — the target objectives of this particular project plan. The same financial discipline required of any conventional for-profit business can be applied to projects with the primary aim of improving socioeconomic conditions. Profitability provides money needed to be self-sustaining for the purpose of achieving social and economic objectives such as benefit of a nation’s poorest, neediest people. In which case, the enterprise is a social enterprise. “

“This is a long-term permanently sustainable program, the basis for “people-centered” economic development. Core focus is always on people and their needs, with neediest people having first priority — as contrasted with the eternal chase for financial profit and numbers where people, social benefit, and human well-being are often and routinely overlooked or ignored altogether. This is in keeping with the fundamental objectives of Marshall Plan: policy aimed at hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. This is a bottom-up approach, starting with Ukraine’s poorest and most desperate citizens, rather than a “top-down” approach that might not ever benefit them. They cannot wait, particularly children. Impedance by anyone or any group of people constitutes precisely what the original Marshall Plan was dedicated to opposing. Those who suffer most, and those in greatest need, must be helped first — not secondarily, along the way or by the way. “

When the author appealed to US government for support in 2008, it may have been why he titled the letter ‘Genesis’

“Now, with even the US Pentagon stating that they’ve learned their lesson in Iraq and realize (so says top US general in Iraq ten days or so ago) that winning hearts and minds is the best option, I and others shall continue to think positive and look for aid budgets and funding spigots to be opened much more for people and NGOs in silos, foxholes and trenches, insisting on better than ordnance, and who understand things and how to fix them. We can do that. We can even do it cost-effectively and with far better efficiency than the ordnance route. Welcome to our brave new world. Except it’s not so new: learn to love and respect each other first, especially the weakest, most defenseless, most voiceless among us, then figure out the rest. There aren’t other more important things to do first. This message has been around for at least two thousand years. How difficult is it for us to understand?”


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