of Missionary Research
Vol. 38, No. 1
Does Donor Support Help or Hinder Business as Mission Practitioners? An Empirical Assessment
Much attention has been given in recent years to the role of business in missions. Often called “business as mission” (BAM), the integration of business and missions presents new opportunities and raises new questions for mission scholars. It represents an opportunity in that BAM is the only ministry or mission strategy that has the potential to create wealth and support itself. All other ministries in various ways must transfer wealth from one group (individual donors, governments, and so forth) to another to stay afloat. Yet this self-supporting aspect also raises some important theological, legal, and economic questions. Theologically, it requires Christians to develop an understanding of how business relates to missio Dei. Legally, those conducting BAM within the context of a government-approved charity must exercise great care to avoid violating the law. Economically, since BAM is essentially a for-profit ministry, it raises many questions about how to structure and manage such a ministry for maximum impact.
This article focuses on the economic question, specifically the role—good or bad—of economic incentives within a BAM context. A concern held by many mission leaders is that economic incentives, if left unchecked, can cause practitioners to lose sight of their ministry goals. Indeed, this fear underlies the advice often given to missionary-practitioners that they should keep their businesses small and continue to draw donor support rather than become dependent on the business for their salaries.
The findings of this study do not support this concern. Based on a survey of 119 BAM practitioners, it finds that donor-supported practitioners are no more effective in producing spiritual fruit than their business-supported peers. Furthermore, in terms of other kinds of “fruit,” business-supported practitioners report significantly better results. This difference may partially be a function of firm size—donor-supported BAM practitioners tend to have smaller businesses than business-supported practitioners and are therefore likely to have regular contact with fewer people. Conversely, a thriving, highly visible business has greater transformative potential than a struggling, low-profile business. The evidence presented in this article suggests that, for a BAM business to have a meaningful impact in a community, it should be structured and incentivized much like a “regular” business, which includes (1) an independent board of directors and (2) salaries that are based, at least in part, on the company’s performance.
We consider first the definition and goals of a BAM business, followed by a review of previous empirical work in this area. Building on that foundation, two hypotheses are generated, and the results of the study are presented.
Definition and Goals of a BAM Business
Today we have a bewildering range of definitions of BAM. It might be helpful to think of the alternatives on a continuum, as shown in the four contrasts below. On one end are those who see BAM mainly as a vehicle for evangelism and church planting. These practitioners are usually affiliated with a missionary-sending agency or denomination and are often donor supported. They may engage in business somewhat reluctantly, for they would rather be doing “regular missionary work,” but the country in which they serve does not issue visas for such work. For them, business is primarily a means to an end, and time spent doing business is by definition time not spent doing ministry. Small businesses are often preferred, and donor support is seen as essential for (1) insulating practitioners from the pressures that accompany running a business and (2) keeping practitioners focused on their ministry goals.
|missionary-sending organizations “regular” business|
|• Practitioners are donor supported.||• Self-supported.|
|• Spiritual fruit is the only thing that matters.||• Holistic view of ministry.|
|• Business can distract from “ministry.”||• Business itself can glorify God.|
|• Business is a means to an end.||• Business success is essential for any meaningful impact.|
At the other end of the continuum are those who see BAM as a long-overdue acknowledgment that business is itself a divine calling and a ministry, one that is every bit as important as the work of pastors and missionaries. Practitioners who hold this view are often in a “regular business” context in the sense that they are typically not affiliated with a missionary-sending agency. They are sincere Christians who find themselves, for various economic reasons, located in a part of the world that has great social and spiritual need. Their definition of ministry is often broader than that of the average missionary, but the impact they have when led by the Holy Spirit can be no less impressive.
As with any continuum, most entries fall somewhere in between the two end points. In fact, there is widespread agreement on at least one point—the ultimate goal is to glorify God and to help facilitate the “holistic transformation” of a community, introducing true shalom. The differences come down to one’s theological starting points and areas of emphasis. Advocates of BAM have begun referring to the areas of emphasis as the “bottom lines” of a BAM business, which, in addition to financial profitability, include explicit social, environmental, and spiritual goals.
Previous Empirical Work on BAM
Thus far, most evidence on the impact of BAM has been anecdotal and based on limited case studies. The idiosyncratic nature of such evidence makes it difficult to draw any generalizable conclusions. Unfortunately, we presently have only a few rigorous studies that attempt to identify consistent strengths or weaknesses among a large sample of BAM businesses. Of those, none look explicitly at the role of economic incentives, although to the extent that they shed light on other kinds of incentives, they are relevant and interesting.
The first and perhaps most ambitious study was conducted by Patrick Lai as part of his doctoral work at the Asia Graduate School of Theology. This study was a follow-up to Donald Hamilton’s groundbreaking research published in 1987 on tentmaker effectiveness. Like Hamilton’s study, Lai’s definition of “effective” centered on spiritual outcomes, specifically: (1) the number of people the tentmakers led to Christ, (2) the number of people they discipled in the Word, and (3) the number of churches they planted. In addition to being focused exclusively on the single “bottom line” of spiritual impact, it looked only at individual effectiveness, not at the effectiveness of a team or business.
Most of Lai’s subjects were donor-supported tentmakers affiliated with missionary-sending agencies who themselves emphasized evangelistic outcomes over other measures of kingdom impact. Somewhat predictably, those who stood out as most effective were spiritually mature and evangelistically zealous, as well as socially well adjusted, focused, and well organized. Lai also discovered something counterintuitive: those who believed that the ultimate objective of mission was simply to win people to Christ were actually less effective in accomplishing these goals. The most consistently effective tentmakers were those who defined their objective as “transforming society” more generally. These findings provide our first hint that a holistic, multiple-bottom-line approach to ministry may ultimately be more fruitful, even in terms of spiritual outcomes.
Another study that considered the effectiveness of BAM—but at the business level rather than the individual level—reached a similar conclusion. Like the previous study, this one was part of a doctoral program. Mark Russell carried out the study at Asbury Theological Seminary and published it in 2011 under the title The Use of Business in Missions in Chiang Mai, Thailand. In an effort to reduce the number of cultural and geopolitical variables, Russell focused on the single city of Chiang Mai, where he conducted an in-depth study of twelve self-identified missionary-run businesses. The results were similar to Lai’s, although much more pronounced—those who had a single-minded focus on spiritual fruit were surprisingly less effective at producing spiritual fruit than those who had broader goals.
Two other studies looked at the motivations of BAM practitioners, not their impact. David Bronkema and Christopher Brown found evidence that, despite all the references in the BAM literature to societal transformation, practitioners themselves seem to care only about the economic and spiritual impact. In their survey of thirty-nine “practitioners and theorists,” not one identified societal or developmental transformation as one of the expected outcomes or best practices. In another study, Linda Christiansen attended a seminar for aspiring BAM practitioners in Chiang Mai. She administered a survey to the nineteen seminar participants and two coaches and later conducted follow-up interviews with ten of the participants as well as the coaches. Contrary to Bronkema and Brown, she concluded that BAM practitioners are more interested in societal and spiritual outcomes than in the economic viability of their businesses.
These studies suggest that much more empirical work is needed before we can say with any confidence how, and under what circumstances, BAM has a kingdom impact. The present study is an attempt to begin filling that gap.
Previous studies looked at the priorities of BAM practitioners and, in the case of Lai and Russell, compared these priorities with actual outcomes. Given the important role economic incentives play in shaping one’s priorities, there is a need for more studies that look at how such incentives help or hinder a BAM initiative.
Therefore, this study looks at the correlation, if any, between how BAM practitioners are paid and their reported outcomes. In line with the concept of “holistic transformation,” the study employs the “quadruple bottom line” language that is common in the BAM literature, namely, that of improving the conditions of a community’s economic, social, spiritual, and environmental circumstances.
Taking the “business-as-mission continuum” above as an accurate depiction of the BAM movement, we can propose two hypotheses. The first flows from the prediction that BAM practitioners who are completely dependent on the business for their personal salaries will devote more time and energy to the business and are therefore more likely to have a greater economic impact. Simply stated:
Hypothesis 1: Business-supported BAM practitioners will have a greater (more beneficial) economic impact on the local community than their donor-supported peers.
The second hypothesis assumes that donor-supported BAM practitioners, because they are freed from the pressures of growing a successful business, will be more accountable for producing explicit spiritual fruit, more focused on that goal, and more effective in that area.
Hypothesis 2: Donor-supported BAM practitioners will be more effective in producing spiritual fruit than their business-supported peers.
Data and Methodology
In an attempt to assess the link between compensation and impact, a fifty-nine-question survey was constructed and made available to BAM practitioners around the world via SurveyMonkey. Leaders of mission agencies and BAM networks were asked to assist in getting the word out. Rather than impose a “correct” definition of BAM and risk excluding some well-intentioned Christians, the survey was made available to anyone who self-identified as a BAM practitioner. This included donor-supported missionary-practitioners and self-supported “regular” business people who were not affiliated with a missionary-sending organization. The survey was completely anonymous and did not ask for any contact information.
A “BAM practitioner” was defined at the outset as a person involved in a business—either for-profit or not-for-profit—that sells a product or service to paying customers. Ministries that give away their product or service (e.g., hospitals for the poor) or those involved in training or mobilizing BAM practitioners were excluded from the study. Also excluded were Christians who worked for companies that did not have an “expressly Christian purpose.” For example, a Christian accountant working for Intel in Malaysia would not be considered a BAM practitioner because the company itself does not have an expressly Christian purpose. In addition to asking for demographic information (e.g., age, gender, and educational background), the survey asked questions relating to the company’s location, structure, industry, and impact in the areas of economic (8 questions), social (5 questions), spiritual (7 questions), and environmental (5 questions) transformation. Some questions were repeated across all four bottom lines and provided opportunity for qualitative self-assessments in each of the four areas. For example, a question asked for each bottom line was “How would you rate the impact of your business over the past three years?” The possible answers were “Exceptionally strong,” “Generally pretty good,” “OK, but could be better,” “Not very good,” and “We’re not making a serious effort in this area.” Other questions were attempts to quantify the impact by identifying specific activities consistent with that bottom line, resources devoted to those activities, or specific outcomes.
Responses to the question “How would you rate the [economic, social, spiritual, or environmental] impact of your business over the past three years?” were then converted to a four-point Likert scale. Responses of “We’re not making a serious effort in this area” were assigned a zero score, and the responses “Exceptionally strong” and “Generally pretty good” were grouped together and assigned the top score of three. Once converted to a numerical score, it became possible to rank surveys either by total impact (the sum of the scores) or by specific bottom lines. Wilcoxon signed-rank tests were then performed to determine whether there is a statistically significant difference in the performance of fully donor-supported and fully business-supported BAM practitioners.
Results and Assessment
Demographic and geographic breakdown. Of the 190 surveys collected over two years, 71 were discarded either because they were woefully incomplete or early-stage start-ups or because they failed the test described above of being a BAM practitioner. Also excluded were those operating in North America. Of the 119 surveys remaining, 38 respondents drew their salaries entirely from donors, 35 were living entirely on income from the business, and 46 were drawing salaries from a combination of the two sources. See table 1 for the demographic breakdown.
|Table 1. Demographic information for the 119 survey respondents|
|Average age: 41|
|Education (bachelor’s degree or higher)||85.0|
This largely white, male, and American sample is probably not an accurate reflection of the BAM movement as a whole, but rather of the North American and Western European components of that movement. Thus, the responses given and the conclusions drawn may apply only to North Americans and Europeans.
As we can see in table 2, nearly all the businesses represented in the sample are for-profit enterprises, which holds true as well for the donor-supported practitioners. One striking difference between the two groups is in the area of accountability and governance. Nearly 80 percent of the practitioners who are fully business-supported work for companies that have a board of directors, whereas boards of directors are much less common for the donor-supported practitioners. The reverse is true for affiliation with a missionary-sending agency or denomination: fully 97 percent of the donor-supported practitioners are affiliated with an agency, compared with 35.3 percent of the business-supported practitioners.
|Table 2. Governance|
|Founded as a for-profit enterprise||91.9||100.0|
|Have board of directors||37.8||79.4|
|Affiliation with a mission agency||97.0||35.3|
To test the possibility that boards and agencies are equally effective forms of accountability for BAM businesses, Wilcoxon tests were run to ascertain the overall impact of companies with a board only and those with agency affiliation only. The impact of a board on total effectiveness is quite strong and statistically significant, with a p-value of 0.0001919. The impact of agency affiliation, however, is negligible. Simply stated, an independent board of directors makes a big difference on total impact, but agency affiliation does not. Tests were also performed on individual bottom lines to see whether perhaps a board or agency affiliation was positively correlated with high scores in specific areas. Surprisingly, no correlation was found with respect to individual bottom lines. For example, agency affiliation did not lead to higher scores in the spiritual bottom line, and having an independent board was not correlated with lower scores in the spiritual bottom line.
Table 3 shows the geographic distribution of the businesses. Most of them (those in lines 1 and 3–5) are operating in the so-called 10/40 Window. Specifically, 81.5 percent of the donor-supported practitioners, and 77.1 percent of the business-supported practitioners are operating in this region. Given the sample sizes, the differences between the two subgroups are statistically insignificant.
|Table 3. Location|
|Middle East and North Africa||10.5||11.4|
|East and Southeast Asia||36.8||37.1|
|Central Asia/former USSR||26.3||8.6|
|Central and South America||—||5.7|
Assessing the impact of BAM companies. One observation that became immediately obvious from the surveys was that, in practice, the first three bottom lines—economic, social, and spiritual—are prominent concerns among BAM practitioners, but there is far from any consensus about the importance of having explicitly environmental goals. Most respondents claimed either to be “not making any effort” or “not doing very well” in this area. Indeed, only 2.9 percent of the donor-supported practitioners and only 17.1 percent of the business-supported practitioners reported having any explicit goals in this area. For simplicity’s sake, therefore, the environmental bottom line was dropped from the analysis that follows.
Of the remaining three bottom lines, the first tests were performed on total impact, meaning the sum of the Likert scores for the three bottom lines. This was seen as a crude approximation for impact that is holistic in nature. Given that each bottom line had a high score of three, this gives a possible total score of nine. The Wilcoxon signed-rank test is a test of medians—specifically, whether the medians are significantly different between the two subgroups. The null hypothesis is that there is no difference between the medians. In this case, the median score for the business-supported practitioners was 7, compared with 5 for the donor-supported practitioners. This large difference was statistically significant, with a p-value of 0.000116.
Next we turn to individual bottom lines, and specifically to Hypothesis 1, which focuses on the economic bottom line, and Hypothesis 2, which isolates the spiritual bottom line.
As far as the economic impact is concerned, there is no contest. The evidence overwhelmingly supports Hypothesis 1. Whether we look at gross revenue, number of employees, or self-reported qualitative descriptions of impact, the companies and practitioners that are fully supported by income from the business report a much greater economic impact than those that are donor supported. For example, the average cumulative revenue over three years for donor-supported businesses is $282,000, compared with $11.4 million for those fully self-supported—a forty-fold difference. As table 4 makes clear, 74 percent of the donor-supported practitioners worked for companies that generated $150,000 or less in sales revenue over three years. By comparison, 75 percent of the self-supported companies generated over $1.2 million in sales over the same time period.
|Table 4. Gross revenue over the previous three years|
|Revenue in U.S. dollars||Donor supported
Donor-supported businesses also employ far fewer local workers, averaging 9.0 full-time and 3.7 part-time employees, compared with 73.4 and 26.1, respectively, for the self-supported businesses. None of the donor-supported practitioners worked for companies that employed more than 50 people, compared with 40 percent of the business-supported practitioners who worked in such companies. Responses to the qualitative questions were consistent with these findings in the sense that the business-supported practitioners report being better known and respected in the community for the economic benefits they bring.
Although no hypothesis was articulated for the social bottom line (physical, noneconomic impact), it is worth noting that the differences between the two subgroups were also striking and statistically significant, although not as large as the economic impact. Many are engaged in philanthropy, community development, and education, but once again we see that, whether one looks at resources devoted to these activities or at self-reported descriptions of local impact and awareness, the companies and practitioners that are fully supported by income from the business have a greater social impact than those that are donor supported.
Perhaps the most interesting and in some ways surprising findings were in the area of the spiritual “bottom line.” Here the null hypothesis of no difference between the two subgroups could not be rejected. In other words, this study did not find evidence to support Hypothesis 2, which says that donor-supported practitioners will be more effective in producing spiritual fruit than their business-supported peers. This finding is worth looking at in some detail.
As with the other bottom lines, multiple questions were used to assess spiritual impact, including the number of people who have heard the Gospel “because of the business’s presence in the community,” number of converts, number of new believers being discipled, as well as qualitative self-assessment questions like those used in the other categories. Regretfully, the attempt to quantify the number of converts (and other categories) largely failed. Many respondents either did not know, do not count, or provided unhelpful answers like “dozens” or “hundreds.” To the extent that some people provided numbers, which provide a general sense of the actual figures, it is not obvious that donor-supported practitioners outperform those who are fully business-supported. This result is consistent with the qualitative self-assessments, which also show no statistical difference between the two groups. For example, in table 5 we see that 30.6 percent of the donor-supported respondents reported either “pretty good” or “exceptionally strong” results, compared with 37.1 percent of the business-supported practitioners. Given the sample sizes, the differences are a statistical tie, and we cannot reject the null hypothesis that there is no difference between the subgroups.
|Table 5. Responses to the question “How would you rate the spiritual impact of your business over the past three years?”|
|Generally pretty good||25.0||31.4|
|OK, but could be better||58.3||54.3|
|Not very good||8.3||8.6|
|We’re not making a serious effort in this area||2.8||—|
Approaching it from a different direction, table 6 reports the responses to a question about how well known the business is in the community for its faith and its desire to tell others about Christ. Here again we see that business-supported practitioners have a slight edge in that the companies they work for are better known in the community for their faith. This is consistent with the findings of Russell that companies that are more open and transparent about their faith have greater impact both economically and spiritually.
|Table 6. Responses to the question “Which of the following statements best describes your views about the social impact of your business?”|
|We are well known in the community for our faith and as a place where people can inquire about Christianity||17.7||41.2|
|We are actively seeking ways to make our faith known and have experimented with some ideas.||50.0||41.2|
|When opportunities to share our faith come up, we seize them, but we’re not very intentional about it.||32.4||11.8|
|We have talked about becoming more open about our faith and what that looks like, but not much has come of it yet.||—||5.9|
|At this point, we have made little effort to make our faith known.||—||—|
This study found that, compared with fully donor-supported BAM practitioners, those who are fully supported by their business report significantly better results in the economic and social arenas, and are no less effective in producing spiritual results. It also found a strong, positive correlation between impact and accountability to an independent board of directors, but no such correlation for those who are affiliated only with a missionary-sending agency.
It would be premature, however, to conclude that donor support or agency affiliation is a hindrance to BAM. As the old adage warns, “Correlation does not prove causation.” Further study is needed to determine whether economic incentives alone explain the differences, or whether there are other factors that explain why donor-supported practitioners tend to underperform their business-supported peers.
Potentially fruitful avenues for further research include looking more closely at the locations of the businesses. While most participants in this survey worked in the 10/40 Window, a country-by-country analysis could reveal important differences. Another avenue would be to look at the theological presuppositions of the practitioners. Do those who seek and receive donor support think differently about missio Dei than other BAM practitioners? And what might be learned from those who draw salaries from both sources—donors and the business? As a group, this subsample reported stronger results than their fully donor-supported peers, but not as strong as the results of the fully business-supported practitioners. Do people adopt this hybrid model by design or by accident? What might be learned about the role of economic incentives by looking more closely at this group?
One thing we can say with certainty is that the questions raised by the integration of business and missions will keep mission scholars busy for a long time!
. See, for example, Steve Rundle and Tom A. Steffen, Great Commission Companies: The Emerging Role of Business in Missions (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2011); Tetsunao Yamamori and Kenneth A. Eldred, eds., On Kingdom Business: Transforming Mission through Entrepreneurial Strategies (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2003); and Tom A. Steffen and Mike Barnett, eds., Business as Mission: From Impoverished to Empowered (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 2006).
. Patrick Lai, “Problems and Solutions for Enhancing the Effectiveness of Tentmakers Doing Church Planting in the 10/40 Window” (Ph.D. diss., Asia Graduate School of Theology, Quezon City, Philippines, 2003); Don Hamilton, Tentmakers Speak: Practical Advice from over 400 Missionary Tentmakers (Ventura, Calif.: Regal Books, , 1987).
. More on what he found to be the characteristics of an effective tentmaker can be found in chapter 4 of Lai’s book Tentmaking: Business as Mission (Colorado Springs, Colo.: Authentic Media, 2005).
. Mark Russell, The Use of Business in Missions in Chiang Mai, Thailand (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey International Univ. Press, 2011).
. David Bronkema and Christopher M. Brown, “Business as Mission through the Lens of Development, Transformation 26, no. 2 (2009): 82–88.
. Linda Christiansen, “Faith-Based Social Entrepreneurship: Business as Mission” (Master’s thesis, Copenhagen Business School, 2008), available at http://studenttheses.cbs.dk/bitstream/handle/10417/681/linda_christiansen.pdf?sequence=1.
. For more on the quadruple bottom line, see C. Neal Johnson, Business as Mission: A Complete Guide to Theory and Practice (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2009), and Mats Tunehag, “Business as Mission: People, Purpose, Planet, and Profit” (2012), www.matstunehag.com/2012/04/22/business-as-mission-people-purpose-planet-and-profit.
. In their open-ended comments at the end of the survey, some responded favorably to the quadruple-bottom-line approach and its implied endorsement of holistic mission. Others excoriated the study for its apparent compartmentalization of life.
. Statistically, grouping the top two categories reduced the variation in the samples and made it more difficult to reject the null hypothesis of there being no difference between the two subgroups.
. The North American companies were many orders of magnitude larger than the typical BAM business in the developing world, and I felt they were not representative of the BAM movement as a whole.
. The 10/40 Window, a term coined by Luis Bush in 1990, encompasses countries (other than in North America) lying roughly between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator; they typically are facing high levels of poverty and have relatively little access to Christian resources.
. In plain English, the probability that the differences in medians is a fluke and the two subgroups are in fact equally effective is 0.01 percent.
. Russell, The Use of Business in Missions.