Sunday, February 12, 2012


Some of you know I was reluctant to leave DC. This was due to the fact that I was helping to launch 3 initiatives with my partner Andy. I wanted to describe a bit of the three initiatives because I am now looking for someone to hire to carry them on.

First, within faith communities I became tired of the false dichotomy between secular and sacred. One manifestation of that is that many churches will spot out someone they think has “talent” or “spiritual” talent and ask them to help serve in a ministry. If they think the person is doing well, they ask them to help lead a ministry or program. If they think they are really impacting, they then invite them on staff because implicitly they are saying that’s where the impact is. But there is no understanding or recognition of the fact that if someone is good or doing good work, maybe they should continue working outside the church. This is exemplified in the fact that churches often expend financial resources and human resources (releasing part of their congregation) to go and plant another church elsewhere, a church that will be led by someone that is identified as a rising star or an impactful person within the parent church. At Redeemer Church in New York City, a group of church goers complained to Pastor Tim Keller and said it’s not fair how church members get all that money and are supported financial for a year or so to do a church plant, but if a church member wants to open a restaurant that employs ex-cons or start an orphanage or establish an urban garden they receive no funds. I don’t credit Pastor Keller and his staff for coming up with the idea, but I do credit them with being amenable to the suggestion and creating the Faith and Work Center. Part of the Faith and Work Center is an Entrepreneurship Initiative that holds a competition to award a grant to one for-profit, one non-profit, and one arts venture being started by a church member.

Andy and I wanted to do something similar in our church community. Imagine it. We had a sermon series called “All In” about being totally committed to the cause. Can you believe that other that 2 examples, every other example used throughout the sermon series was an example of a church clergy member or a missionary? And the two non-clergy examples were extremely wealthy people. The implicit message is that if you are going to be all-in, you need to work for the church or be rich. What we need are churches that have an understanding of the Divine everywhere in the every-day alongside every person. We need churches that see the sacred in extra-church work not just church work or parachurch work. We need to break the sacred-secular divide.

So we started two things. We started a quarterly event in which we came together to discuss such issues. Our first was in September 2011. We had a church member discuss this very issue as it is the topic of a book she is writing. She talked about the examples in the “All-In” series, and she spoke about growing up in church and only being taught how to be a good Christian wife or a good Christian mother. She was neither of those and often questioned “Does my faith have no relevance to my situation as a single businesswoman in the work place or to my job?” It was a good event. And we broke u pinto small groups based on different sectors—military government, non-military government, arts, non-profit, for-profit, other. We plan to do one every quarter, break into small groups, and those groups continue throughout the quarter inviting people to meet to talk about the work they do in the world and the relevance their faith has on such work. (I was not worried about this continuing without me. I knew, if I took the London job, it would be fine and continue.)

Second, we realised there was a need for seed funding for social entrepreneurs in our community. This need felt especially poignant when we considered all the people who took part in our second SPARKS series (hope you followed that series in the updates). We had 100 people in our group, and 30 regulars at the meeting; all were asking “What Next?” They felt empowered to challenge themselves weekly to take new positive timely risks, but what seemed most natural was to come together to do a communal risk for the community and city. So Andy and I began plans to create a community of people who came together and pooled their resources to solve problems local and endemic to D.C.

A good example of this is Plywood People. Plywood People is run by a friend named Jeff, an Atlanta social entrepreneur. Jeff doesn’t convene people in the same way we want to do; he convenes people who are already social entrepreneurs or who are working on ideas to talk and share and network and meet. But let me give you an example of the power of this and what Jeff has done. Jeff and his group were trying to figure out what to do about the refugee situation in the States and in their community. It was hard for refugees to find a viable livelihood and provide for their families. During that time, he was driving and noticed the billboards along the roads. He wondered what they did with billboard paper when the ad was over. He called and asked. They said they threw it away. He asked if he could have it to reuse. They told him yes. Since most billboards are owned by a few companies it wasn’t hard to get the billboard paper from other billboards. Jeff started an organization, subsequently, that employees refugee women to make bags from recycled paper. When Andy and I visited Jeff and his organization in August 2011, they had 10 women working for Billboard Bags and 2 women had already transitioned from Billboard bags to other jobs. Plywood people intends to be an incubating group that continues to launch further initiatives like Gift Card Giver.

So Andy and I set out to do the same thing, but the end of my fellowship and a London offer seemed to be complicating things. So I have been looking for someone to work for me and with Andy in DC to carry on the work. Because this was in the initial stages when I left, it has stalled somewhat, and I would love for someone to continue the work.

Third, and most importantly, Andy and I decided to start our own social enterprise/entrepreneurship incubator. We wanted to start something in between Redeemer Church’s Faith and Work Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative (that hold an annual competition to give a small grant to one arts, one non-profit, and one for-profit venture from among church members) and the Awesome Project (that gets 10 investors to give $100/month for 1 year in order to offer monthly $1,000 cash prizes to the best idea that month to use the money). Instead of monthly prizes or yearly prizes we would do quarterly prizes. We would also have investors, some who give $100/month for 1 year, some who give more like $200/month. And we asked our church to be a much larger investor in the program (on the order of thousands per month). With this money we plan to offer prize ever quarter and to work on business plans with the finalist and provide mentoring.

The incubator had a second part. We also plan to open up a for-profit business, a shared workspace. If you were running start-up and preferred not to work from home or a coffeehouse, you could rent shared workspace from us for any number of hours a day and any number of days a week. You might also come to us if you had a small company (for instance 2 employees) and it was cheaper to rent shared workspace from us than to rent permanent office space. Social entrepreneurs would benefit from networking with other social entrepreneurs who used the space and they could speak with Andy and me for mentoring help. We would also offer workshops both to renters and outside people on topics such as “starting a business,” “creating a business plan,” “forming a board,” “creating a social pitch,” “finding seed funding,” etc.

This was in the initial stages though Andy and I had found a potential location. The initial location didn’t work (physically it was not the right size), so we were on the hunt for a better space, and then I had an offer and left to London. So I’m currently looking for someone to carry on this oh so important work in DC for me.

Additionally, I hired an intern this past summer 2011, one of my former students, to help do preparatory work in restarting the programme that sends high school kids abroad to do international summer service work for 1-2 months. We were restating it as its own stand-alone organisation. Both Houston schools and one D.C. school pulled out of the program and didn’t end up going on the trip for the summer of 2011, so my intern was helping to prep work for schools to go in the summer of 2012. We now have one school signed up to go but they will go in the summer of 2013. Many thanks to Audrey McKim who is doing hard work on the ground in Houston while I’m off doing other projects. If you would like to help or to take over any of the above 3 projects or this international summer service programme, please let me know. Thanks!

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