by Bruce Swanson
Mission and business could use the help of the other.
More and more people in the mission world are either talking about Business as Mission (BAM) or trying to figure out how to do BAM. At the same time, it seems that many business people are not paying attention to BAM efforts in the mission world. Either on their own or with their individual churches, business people are also engaging in BAM.
Mission and business could use the help of the other. Mission people need skill sets developed in the marketplace, as well as an insider’s understanding of what it takes to do business. Business people need the cross-cultural street smarts and networks that can protect them from making rookie mistakes in a new culture.
Despite needing each other, when the two groups try to work together, it can be difficult. At Transformational Ventures—the business-as-mission arm of WorldVenture (a traditional mission agency)—we bridge the two worlds. We have lived the frustrations of difficult working relationships, read our share of BAM literature, and are daily engaging with each group.
Missionaries tell us about Western business people arriving in their area determined to stick to a task-focused, “time-is-money” schedule. They don’t ask questions of cultural insiders and act as though they can impose their own agenda and solutions—solutions that were decided upon even before arriving. The missionaries describe the damage control necessary after business people visit their field.
Business people tell us their own stories. They talk about trying to engage with mission leaders (and church leaders) and coming away frustrated. Sometimes they feel like victims of a bait and switch. They are invited to help by using their business skills, but they end up being asked for more donations. If not a victim of the bait and switch, they are frustrated by projects with fuzzy deliverables, half-baked planning, little accountability, and slow decision-making.
For two groups that want to accomplish the same goal of transforming lives around the world through the gospel, they have a remarkably hard time working together. If I had to trace the differences back to one root variable, I’d put my money on competition. Of course, there are other variables, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just look at one of them.
One very successful entrepreneur told me that every day as he went to work, he knew that someone was working hard to take away his customers, gain an advantage over his company, and succeed at his expense. How many missionaries go to work each day with that mindset or weight on their shoulders? True, mission agencies and non-profits quietly compete for limited donor dollars. But competition in the for-profit marketplace is a different animal. For example, mission agencies tend to be open-handed with one another about their best practices and “trade secrets.” Can you imagine Apple and Microsoft doing that?
To thrive in a competitive environment, business people must act quickly; hard decisions must be faced immediately. Strategic planning is a do-or-die activity; fuzzy goals cannot be tolerated. Mid-course evaluation and immediate correction must happen. Money is not a precious resource to be conserved; it is a tool to be used quickly and wisely to execute a plan and generate more money. In the business world, meetings tend to be shorter and more focused, with tighter agendas.
In the mission and non-profit world, we are also shaped by our environment and culture. Rarely do we sense someone is out to take advantage of us. So we operate with a different sense of urgency. We plan and execute, but not as rigorously. We tackle hard decisions—eventually. We are more relaxed in our meetings—if they happen. And we typically pay more attention to people than numbers.
Business as mission requires that the two worlds converge and learn from one another. Of course there will be struggles, but we have identified eight principles through three strategies to help guide this relationship.
Strategy One: Epicenters
We are putting energy into several locations around the world where we believe BAM initiatives can be focused and create momentum that will multiply their local and regional impact. We are calling these strategies BAM Epicenters to convey the idea of movement with radiating impact. These epicenters involve business seminars, training, small business loans, coaching, peer groups, market research, best practices, etc. They are a variation of a small business incubator. To accomplish all this, businesses, people, and their skills are needed; epicenters will not happen without their valuable input and assistance.
Principle #1: Set goals that need business people to accomplish them. Christian business people can hardly stay away from kingdom-impacting projects that clearly define the need for their specific skill set.
Principle #2: Break up large tasks into bite-sized pieces. Some volunteers can give you hours each week, some can give you an hour a month, and others just a couple hours one time. Of course, you must decide if the time needed to prep a volunteer is worth the work you will get out of that person. Business people understand if you tell them you can’t use them right now; in fact, they appreciate this honest assessment.
Principle #3: Give business people freedom to accomplish their small or large task with their own methods and at their own speed. Keep in close touch and prep them if they are going to a cross-cultural situation. However, don’t tell them how to get the task done. Be ready to work with some results that weren’t exactly what you had envisioned, but also be prepared for results to exceed your expectations.
Strategy Two: Modified Franchise Company
We are also developing a modified franchise company that creates jobs in the United States in impoverished communities. We partner with organizations overseas that demonstrate strong kingdom principles and business potential. We come alongside these organizations and offer product development, market diversification, and business coaching. The business is directed by an informal advisory committee. Each advisory member has a business background and has shaped the company from its inception.
Principle #4: Respect the busyness of business people. They work long hours and their jobs go through cycles that completely absorb them for days or months at a time. Our advisory committee has had members go into hibernation for awhile and then come back. Their commitment never waned, but their availability fluctuated.
Principle #5: Respect the culture and approach of business people. We try to be clear about when our advisory meetings will be held, what is on the agenda, and what we need to accomplish. If a meeting is not necessary, we will cancel it. We try to keep the meetings crisp and to the point, while also giving time to connect on a personal level.
Strategy Three: www.BAMmatch.com
We created BAMmatch.com for anyone doing BAM, not just for Transformational Ventures. Our missionaries and BAM practitioners needed business assistance, but our traditional non-profit circles prohibited networking at the speeds necessary for business success. At BAMmatch.com, organizations, BAM practitioners, and the general public interested in BAM can meet and find coaching assistance from pre-screened and qualified business professionals.
We have positioned BAMmatch to be a level playing field for all organizations and individual BAM projects. Any organization or BAM effort can sign up and post their coaching needs. The key to the success of this strategy is to attract quality business people to the site. This happens when successful matches share their experiences and encourage others that the working relationship is successful.
Principle #6: Ask business people for their time and skills, not their money. On BAMmatch, fundraising is forbidden. People post needs for “human capital,” not financial capital. Although business people financially support Transformational Ventures, we are actively seeking to turn those donations into sustainable revenue generators. This process excites business people because it speaks a language they understand.
Principle #7: Answer these three questions for business people: Why should I do this? Exactly what am I expected to accomplish? What will it cost? On BAMmatch, we coach those posting their BAM needs to answer these questions in convincing, honest ways. Business people stay away from half-baked planning, but find compelling, well-designed opportunities very appealing.
Principle #8: Don’t shy away from a big “ask.” Most of the coaching opportunities on BAMmatch need the business volunteer to spend his or her own vacation time and money to do a site visit. That is a big request! Business people are willing to do this because they want to impact the world for Christ and believe in what they are being asked to do.
These principles are helping Transformational Ventures find and engage with business people of all kinds. We are learning from every project, every volunteer relationship, and every mistake we make. Does it take a lot of effort? Yes, both on our part and the part of our business colleagues. But the payoff is worth it—we are seeing lives transformed by the power of the gospel through the means of economic enterprise.
Bruce Swanson worked with WorldVenture in Portugal from 1983 to 1993, where he focused on church startups and leadership development. During those years, Bruce also created a community-based approach to drug prevention and treatment. Since 1993, he has been on the leadership team of WorldVenture and has recently shifted his focus to complex new partnerships and Business as Mission.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 478-481. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.