“On the other hand, many religious leaders themselves, along with religious doctrines, seem to be anti-profit and anti-wealth (witness the frequent invocation of the Biblical quotation, “It is easier for a rich man to pass through the eye of a needle than to enter the kingdom of heaven”), thereby stigmatizing the individual entrepreneur.” (Religious Entrepreneurs, Nicole Seymour)
“… ultimately, a businessman running an [Charter] elementary school is going to have an interest in turning a profit, which (I think it’s reasonable to suspect) might compromise his interest in providing a quality education.” (Randall Balmer, The case for liberal Evangelicals at Scot McKnight's Jesus Creed, comment 36)
“We need to be about helping people, not making profits!” (This and similar sentiments heard by me as expressed by countless Mainline theologians and pastors.)
For some of my Evangelical readers living in Evangelical denominations or congregations, this rant may seem quite foreign to your ears. There is too often an unquestioning embrace in Evangelical circles of every business and marketing strategy that emerges with little theological reflection on the economic issues raised by business practices. That clearly is a problem.
However, in Mainline Christianity, the sentiments expressed above are pervasive. “Profit” is a four letter word. I want to address this post to the anti-profits crowd.
Lets get one thing straight to start with: Every business, non-profit or otherwise, is a profit making venture. You either take in as much or more as you spend or you go under. The essential difference between a not-for-profit and a profit making venture is that in the not-for-profit firm, all of the profit stays in the business. It can not be distributed to the board members or regular members of the organization. So the “non-for-profit” aspect is about the individuals involved not the institution. The non-for-profit institution is engaged in making a profit.
A second characteristic of non-profits is that they have two customers. First, there are the donors who give the money and, second, the recipients of the non-profit’s services. Rarely are these the same people. So what happens if the donor’s interests and values conflict with the recipient’s values and interests? Who do you think the non-profit is going to listen to? Will it be the donors (who pay the salaries) or the service recipients? I can tell you quite plainly it is the donor’s interest that counts and failure to honor that reality with your funds will land you in jail. What recourse does the recipient have if they are dissatisfied with the service given? Very little.
Meanwhile, in a for profit venture, I either give the customer the products and services they want or they take their business to a competitor. The recipient’s satisfaction is the determining factor in whether or not I get paid. Now which of the two models, not-for-profit or profit do you think is more likely to give the better value and service to a customer? (I might add that government services are just another form of non-profits except instead of donors as primary customers they have legislatures.)
A common error is frequently made of equating selfishness with self-interest when we talk about profit. Theologically and economically it is in my self-interest to put others first and not be selfish. In Matthew 7 Jesus said, “Do not Judge …” Why? “… so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” Is this not a direct appeal to our self-interest; the avoidance of judgment? In Mark 10 James and John ask to be seated on the left and right hand of God. Jesus did not rebuke this ambition. Instead, he tells them “Go for it! And here is how you do it: put everyone else ahead of you.” If you want to be first in the Kingdom, it is in your self-interest to put others ahead of yourself.
Profit is not evil. It is about win-win situations. I specialize in goods and services that I can produce cheaper and better than you can. If you value the good and services I made, and offer to pay an amount for them that is worth more to me than the goods I made, then we both win. The difference between my value of the product and what you paid me is my profit. You profited by parting with resources that were of less value to you than the investment of time, energy and resources you would have had to put into supplying the product yourself. You profit too. You turn around and offer goods and services that I buy in a similar manner. The economy is an endless cycle of these win-win transactions. The beauty of this is that even the greedy person, to get all the loot they want, still has to out do the others in giving the customers what they want. It channels their greed toward productive ends.
Finally, I would challenge ant-profit types to consider where the funds come from that are donated to a non-profit enterprises. Where do the taxes come from that legislatures allocate to social service agencies? They come from businesses that generate profits; people who have exceeded others in serving customer’s needs. Are your prepared to do “not-for-profit” work with out the aid of funds from those who have earned profits? Where exactly will the money come from?
I don’t question at all the need for the existence of not-for-profit institutions. There are people and situations where this is the best alternative. But the single best poverty fighting tool known is the creation of jobs and wealth which is exactly what those who successfully engage in for profit business do.
The entrepreneurial and business vocations are not some tainted side show to the Kingdom of God. They are integral to the mission of the Church in the world. It is true that many are seduced into self-centered lifestyles with the profits they earn. But the correct response is not the denigration of honorable vocations. It is in helping those in those vocations understand that all they hold is in stewardship for God and is to be used with the heart and mind of God. The animus expressed for people in business vocations by mainline entities and scholars only drives the servants away from God and perpetuates the corrupt use of God’s resources, when instead they should be equipping people to engage in "profitic" ministry.