Beyond the Handout: Entrepreneurship and Poverty

As Benedictine College helps launch a Spark Tank project in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere, the Thompson Center’s Dave Geenens presents this four part series on poverty and entrepreneurship.

Teaching someone to fish is better than handing them a fish, but helping them start a fishing business is best of all. Strong local businesses transform communities.

The problem is, considering being an entrepreneur for one in the condition of poverty is more scary than romantic. When living check-to-check or wondering from where my next ride, meal, or pillow will come, stability and security are much more important than the thrill of an entrepreneurial venture. Yet, indigenous entrepreneurship is essential to transforming U.S. urban centers and the populations living therein. We as business leaders own the responsibility to not just push and promote entrepreneurship, but to minimize the risk and fear of indigenous entrepreneurs so they’ll engage in the practice of starting businesses in their communities where they own the assets and can create wealth for themselves and stability for those around them.

In Part I of this series, we exposed two of the unquestioned assumptions and imbedded beliefs of marketplace investing “bucket” and how these paradigms do not provide an adequate answer to the problem noted above. People with resources to invest must wrestle with the morality of holding indigenous urban or rural entrepreneurs to an expectation of market-type returns. In this post, we’ll do the same for the those with resources and their philanthropy “bucket.”

Most people with resources have another bucket used for philanthropic giving. Associated with these resources are another set of unquestioned assumptions and imbedded beliefs that hinder the type of growth essential for indigenous entrepreneurs to engage in self-wealth building practices.

First of all, many people with resources assume that all giving is good, and it is to a point. Philanthropic giving is an essential means for meeting acute needs and providing relief and betterment to individuals and communities in need. Unfortunately, relief-and-betterment giving too often creates the unintended consequence of deep dependencies on that giving and does little-or-nothing to solve the underlying problems that create the need for giving of alms.

In addition, people receiving a gift of something they can secure or gain themselves, are not dignified through this process. In the documentary, The Poverty Cure, one underlying theme is that no one wants to be a beggar for life. Those receiving regular and consistent aid often report being worse off when the aid ceases because they forgot how secure or earn for themselves.

Secondly, this type of philanthropy is far from the commandment of God to “love one’s neighbor as yourself.” [Mark 12:30-31] Relief-and-betterment giving is too often just transactional. It’s done out of a sincere willingness to help, but it can also be the addictive source of benevolent strokes that, logically, make the giver feel good. I get it. But are we not called as Christians to relational giving or serving in love, not just transactional charity? Unfortunately, charity has devolved into what can be coined secular humanitarianism. It’s a shallow version of the love expected of Christians as we serve our neighbors and communities.

The most perverse manifestation of this type of giving is the abdication of care and charity to the U.S. government. Those with resources pay handsomely of their wealth in the form of taxes and may choose to leave the care and concern for those in the condition of poverty to the government! In doing so, we abdicate our responsibility to an entity that can in no way substitute for knowing the needs and obstacles of our neighbors and how to best meet those needs in dignified ways.

Lastly, there exists a phenomenon that diminishes the joy of giving over long periods of time: donor fatigue. When we give annually to a cause or charity, we can expect a call next year to give the same or greater amounts without any evidence that core problems causing the need are being addressed. This is not sustainable in the long term.

Might there be an opportunity to begin thinking differently about how we give our philanthropic dollars and resources that can avoid creating unhealthy dependencies, dignify those in the condition of poverty, and provide relational connections that make knowing another a precursor for the neighborly love God envisioned for us? The answer is yes! But how?

We’ll look at that next. In the meantime, your challenge is this: dream of how, if given the opportunity, might you use your philanthropic dollars, coupled with your business acumen to create this type of relational charity.

Click for Part One in this series, “Finding a Way: Entrepreneurship and Poverty”; Part Two, “Beyond the Handout”; Part Three, “Transformational ROI — Where the Bottom Line Meets Poverty”; and Part Four, “Investment not Philanthropy.”

Image: U.N. Women, Flickr

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Dave Geenens

Dave Geenens is an Associate Professor and is the Assistant Director of the Thompson Center for Integrity in Finance and Economics in the School of Business at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. His over 30-years of executive experience in addition to his Bachelor’s Degree, MBA, and CPA license (inactive) add a realism to his research and teaching. Dave has written four books and speaks often on the integration of faith and work and the critical role Christian virtue plays in protecting free markets and liberty. Since Dave writes on multiple topics including investing and philanthropy, nothing in this article is to be construed as investment advice and any investment of any kind includes a risk of loss.