A Leap of …Entrepreneurship? Finding a Place for Faith in Social Innovation

White House Director of Jewish Liaison Jarrod Bernstein keynoted the Community Partners/Jumpstart Southern California Faith-Based Social Innovation Forum; photo courtesy Sherry Etheredge.

by Rebecca McQuigg Rigal

In today’s world, an average conversation about leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation would likely include references to Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Jack Dorsey of Square and Twitter fame; TOMS shoes founder Blake Mycoskie, and any number of other names frequently cited in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, and Bloomberg Businessweek. You would be hard-pressed to hear any mention of a faith-based organization or an entrepreneur who speaks openly of his or her religious roots. In fact, most people would probably be surprised to hear “faith” and “innovation” used in the same sentence. But a recent series of events has got me convinced that any conversation about leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation has plenty of space for the topic of faith.

This past August, I attended a forum on faith-based social innovation – co-hosted by Jewish Jumpstart, a research & design lab for Jewish and interreligious innovation & social entrepreneurship, and Community Partners, a secular ideas incubator – at the Center for Healthy Communities in downtown Los Angeles. As it turned out, I was in good company, as I came to find that many of the attendees – most of whom already tread quite deep in this space – had been having a broader conversation about the subject of faith-based social innovation and interfaith collaboration for quite some time. I also realized that there was a lot to learn – not just about how faith-based organizations can inspire innovation but also how interfaith collaborations can surface highly effective entrepreneurial initiatives from which the secular world can draw.

The forum drew for inspiration from this summer’s pioneering White House Faith-based Social Innovators Conference, held in July in Washington, DC. While faith-based innovators and organizations have been trying to sort these things out for some time, they’ve largely operated in isolation and relative obscurity. It took the authority and guidance of the White House to not only instigate a meaningful, broad strokes dialogue around inter-faith relations and innovation, but also get the right people in the room for the first time.

Jonathan Greenblatt, Director of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation, who co-organized the White House summit, said its goal was to convene faith-based social innovators in order to “hear their stories, learn from their examples and share best practices among the community.” A featured speaker at the White House conference, Jumpstart co-founder and CEO Shawn Landres said he saw an opportunity to inspire local change by delving deeper into some of the key themes that were surfaced in D.C. Even while they still were at the White House, he and fellow White House guest Paul Vandeventer, the President and CEO of Community Partners, started working on the idea of a regional follow-up. A keynote address in Southern California by the White House’s Jarrod Bernstein, representing the Office of Public Engagement, linked the two events.

Some of the most insightful themes were surfaced during a session lead by seasoned veterans working in the field of faith-based social innovation. The panel included John Sullivan, Creative Director and co-founder of BTS Communications, a social venture based at Jewish drug treatment center Beit T’Shuvah that provides professional career training in the advertising and marketing fields to recovering residents; Nadia Roumani, co-founder and director of the American Muslim Civic Leadership Institute (AMCLI) at the University of Southern California; Mary Donnelly-Crocker, Executive Director, at Young and Healthy, a Pasadena-based, faith-born nonprofit that brings high-quality healthcare for uninsured and underinsured children; and Matthew Emerzian, co-founder of Every Monday Matters and co-author of Every Monday Matters: 52 Ways to Make a Difference both components of a grass-roots movement and school curriculum teaching about social responsibility. Their key takeaways:

  • Faith transcends religion.” As an Irish Catholic working for a Jewish organization, BTS Communications’s John Sullivan reminded the audience that irrespective of faith or tradition, there are things, as stewards of the planet, that we should all be conscious of and eager to embrace. And if we can embrace them together, despite our differences, we can be unstoppable.
  • It’s not about you – it’s about serving others.” Every Monday Matters founder Matthew Emerzian described the process of giving up a high-profile but unfulfilling entertainment industry career by shifting his focus from himself to serving others. There are plenty of people who go to church on Sunday, he said, but still don’t do anything to help their communities, when it’s the shared sense of service that transforms lives.
  • Break the rules to do what’s right.” Coming home from her first week as Young and Healthy’s executive director two decades ago, Mary Donnelly-Crocker wasn’t sure how comfortable she was with praying in staff meetings. But today she attributes much of the organization’s success to steadfast faith-born practices and ideologies, including a propensity for thorough research, social compassion and a highly effective capacity for community outreach. She said that her most important lesson came from the founder’s commitment to boil even the most complex dilemmas down into a core question: what is the moral and ethical thing to do?
  • Determine need versus noise.” American Muslim Civic Leadership Initiative founder Nadia Roumani observed that the intense pressure faced by U.S. Muslim communities – combined with a lack of infrastructure and experience leadership – often made it difficult for Muslim organizations to make deliberate decisions instead of reacting to immediate crises. She pointed out that while Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh communities still have a lot they can learn from more experienced minority groups, nevertheless it’s important to spend time assessing their communities’ core needs and priorities, rather than buying into the noise.
  • Go beyond episodic empathy.” Following the panel, Najeeba Syeed-Miller, professor of interreligious education at Claremont Lincoln University, encouraged participants to “find ways to recognize the interdependence of faith communities before a crisis happens.” She noted that interreligious social innovation becomes possible when communities “begin to build trust with one another when there is no immediate threat and so when there is a crisis, we have a map for how to support one another.”

Admittedly, joining such an intense conversation was a bit like jumping down the rabbit hole: the dialogue was extremely complex (oftentimes bordering on foreign), best practices have yet to be uncovered, fear of the unknown looms large, and resources (i.e. the kinds of road maps, guiding lights, and directional signage secular social innovators take for granted) are seemingly non-existent.

Vandeventer and Landres said they were particularly pleased by the enthusiastic response of Los Angeles County officials to the forum. “As pressure increases on state and local governments – and charities – to patch the holes in the social safety net,” added Landres, “I hope their search for creative responses will include the many faith-based innovators finding new solutions to seemingly intractable social and economic challenges.” Indeed, Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission official Robert Sowell acknowledged that “faith-based organizations have great desire and energy for serving the public good” and noted the benefits of “ongoing effort to remove any obstacles that may exist in federal policy or practice, and to create support whenever and wherever it is possible without sacrificing equity.”

Still, even the organizers admitted the challenges ahead. Calling the conversation “important but undeveloped,” Landres expressed concern about making sure that “we’re speaking a common language and that we have the right resources – individually within each organization and collaboratively across this new network – to define a purposeful and productive agenda.”

Rebecca McQuigg Rigal is a trend analyst, market research consultant and pop culture commentator with expertise in a variety of industries including: media, youth trends, impact marketing, sustainability, arts and entertainment, fashion, beauty, technology, and retail. McQuigg Rigal has contributed to various magazines, newsletters, and trade publications including GOOD/GOOD.is, C Magazine, iMedia’s Entertainment Spot, Lipsticktracez.com, Examiner.com, Hypervocal.com, and was selected by MySpace and The Wall Street Journal to cover the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as a citizen journalist and blogger. She has a B.A. in Journalism from The Ohio State University.