During my time in Zambia, I came into contact with many missions, who shared a similar social objective; to build a self sustaining organisation to provide and foster opportunity within a disadvantaged community. In English, this means to share the Word of God while meeting a social need within a disadvantaged community.
Most missions do this by starting an NGO (non government organisation / not-for-profit organisation), through which Christ is shared, needs are met, suffering is alleviated and lives are changed. It has been my observation that sustaining mission with a regular income stream can be one of the many stresses of mission, and so I thought I would talk a little bit about a few approaches I have seen in the field.
Most missions begin (and sometimes end) with donation. The missions have typically started with fund raising to get the necessary monies for infrastructure (i.e. buildings), and rely on continuing donation to sustain existing work and future expansion. One of the issues with donation is that it is a bit of a roller coaster... sometimes donations are up, bills are met, wages are paid, new programs are developed, but sometimes donations are down, and can be a struggle just to maintain day to day operation, let alone plan for the future.
This rise and fall can be attributed to anything from changing economic conditions (i.e. the GFC), to a change in staff. As a good friend who ran a mission struggling to be independent of foreign donation said to me, 'People give to people, not to organisations.' As staff, whether they are paid, or volunteers from overseas, come and go from a mission, quite often they take with them the regular donations given in support of their work which helped meet mission running costs.
To combat the ebb and flow of donation, and move closer to the goal of financial autonomy, many missions look to establishing of some form of sideline business to supplement donated income. Initially businesses are small scale and easily managed with existing staff, such as growing and selling produce, or some other service such as milling flour, renting equipment, renting basic accommodation, or starting a small community shop.
As a mission grows however, so to do the bills, and many find the need for a business with a greater turn over to not only support its own running costs, but that of the mission as well. The growing need, or dependency on a business within mission often presents a mission with a number of issues.
The issue of arguably the greatest importance, is the dilution of vision. For a mission directly involved in managing a business and its day to day operation, there is a chance that the mission's initial focus on charity and social need, may waiver in the face of incorporating often contrary goals presented by commercial enterprise.
The overarching vision for mission may remain intact (for example, to disciple and reach the lost while fostering opportunity), however when it comes to the day to day decision making, as business goals and mission goals often differ, compromises may have to be made. Indeed, there is a risk of running the business as a mission, or alternatively, running the mission as a business. Both are bad. Both can have a negative effect on meeting the social and spiritual goals set by a mission.
Running a mission as a business, without a clear separation between mission and business staff and management, can sometimes undermine that mission's focus and vision, limiting the mission's effectiveness and even alienating those involved. As the need for money is usually always present, and as the business will assumingly be meeting that need, there is a danger that the mission management's focus could increasingly shift to the business, rather than the mission itself.
If staff from the mission also work within the business, then often one entity's vision and values are compromised with the other. A mission typically is a charity by nature, whereas a business is commercial. Sometimes this overlap can also adversely affect staff morale. Most of the time, the biggest contributors to a mission are its staff, working for lower than normal wages so the mission may spend more on the affected community. If their focus is taken away from the community and spent on the business, it can sometimes lead to disgruntlement, particularly if they can see the money the business generates, and they remain on a reduced wage.
The opposing tendency to running the mission as a business, is to run the business like a mission. Running a business as a mission can result in poor business performance and big administrative (and sometimes legal) headaches, again due to the differing visions and values between commercial and charitable organisations. The line becomes blurred between what is to be done as business (and charged to the business) and what is to be done as charity. Mission resources can be used inadvertently, and sometimes illegally (if bought tax free by the not-for-profit mission) by the business, and vice versa.
Expectations can be made of staff by either entity, that aren't necessarily shared, and roles and responsibilities can be ambiguous and confusing. Starting and running a business takes a lot of time and energy, just as much as the mission itself, and as its a commercial endeavour, it needs to be run as such.
So what's the answer? How are these things best avoided? Well I don't believe there is a silver bullet; a one size fits all solution. Keeping in mind that I have never founded a mission of my own, I believe each mission is its own beast. From my observations, I have formed some simple principles to keep in mind when looking for a business to fund mission.
Number One – pray! Sounds obvious, but sometimes we rely on what we think is common sense rather than submitting it all to the Lord and trusting in His direction.
Number Two – talk to others. A problem shared is a problem halved. It has been my experience that quite often missions work largely in isolation. Many missions face the same problems, and ultimately share the same objectives, so it makes sense to network and get some advice from others who have faced similar issues.
Number Three – draw a line and separate business from mission. As much as feasibly possible, keep all staff and resources separate from one another. If possible separate the business premises from the mission premises. All of this costs more money, and creates more work up front, but I believe it will preserve the integrity of both the mission and the business to do what they were created to do. Arguably, if the business can't stand on its own two feet, and relies on constant use of mission resources, then its arguable that it wasn't a feasible business to begin with.
Number Four – keep it that way! Let the business rise and fall on its own commercial merit, and don't prop it up using mission money. Its a business that, if successful, will support the mission, not the other way round. Stick to the business plan, and make sure there is an exit strategy. If it fails, then it fails independently of the mission. If resources are shared between the two, then the mission will ultimately suffer. If there is good separation, whatever happens to the business, affects only the business, and the business is free to donate support to the mission from its profit free from scrutiny. Not-for-profit organisation expenditures are always under scrutiny due to the tax bonuses they can offer.
Number Five – ensure the mission is represented in the business management structure. Whether its at the board (if one exists), or strategic planning level, this will ensure the links and support for the mission are preserved and monitored.
In the end after all the strategising and planning, its good to remember that God is in control! And what a relief that is! Wasn't it Jesus who said '... I will build my church'? If it's His mission, He will look after it. Overall this has been a very simple look at what can be a complex problem, but as in all things, we do our best and let God do the rest, praying everything according to His will.