Integrity and Social Enterprise

Dr. David Befus

The concept of productive economic enterprise that supports mission has been effective since the Apostle Paul utilized tent making to support his ministry. There are great contemporary examples, such as the Roblealto Chicken farm, that has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into ministries with children in Costa Rica for many decades.

But the problem with many “BAM” projects that I am asked to review is that they are neither “business” nor “mission.” They are not really businesses, because they do not generate adequate returns, and require a subsidy to survive. And they often demonstrate very little in relation to Christian outreach, so the “mission” label seems more like wishful thinking than reality.

As the “BAM” concept has become popular, it is increasingly used to access donor resources, and therefore may mean very little. I have heard the argument at mission conferences against “tent fakers” (as opposed to tent makers) because governments and local authorities soon catch on to the fact that missionaries with a business visa cannot really exhibit viable business activity. 

At a more basic level, and without consideration of issues such as access to unreached peoples, is it right to call something a business that does not generate revenue sufficient to cover costs? It is not easy, after all, to start a profitable business, but that goal must be met if a project is categorized as “BAM.”

The second goal is to promote genuine Christian witness. It has long been popular to celebrate the accomplishments of the wealthy Christian business person, and the assumption is that their profession of faith must impact their company in some way. But many in high places in business are secret Christians, and their faith is virtually unknown in their professional circles. Does the fact that a Christian has started a successful business in China have an impact on the Chinese employees? This is a legitimate question to ask.

When I consider the many successful “BAM” projects that I know, it is very apparent that it is not easy to harness Social Enterprise for the Gospel. But it is a worthy cause. We need to appreciate the difficulty of creating viable economic enterprises, like the Roblealto Chicken farm, and not trivialize this resource for ministry. I hope that the difficult questions about “viability” and “witness” can be allowed. 

Dr. David Befus is a professor of management at Northwestern College. He is passionate about sharing good business principles and practices with people in developing countries, enabling them to lift themselves out of poverty. He has worked with World Vision, the World Bank and the United Nations. He’s also the author of Where There Are No Jobs: Enterprise Solutions for Employment and Public Goods for the Poor, and has a Ph.D. from the University of Miami. He also teaches online courses on Social Enterprise and World Poverty and Development.