Thursday, June 19, 2014

Benefit Churches

A short spot on NPR the other day caught my ear, on what the industry is beginning to call Benefit Corporations. The reporter launched the report with the pithy, A corporation generally exists for one reason: to make money.

Whenever I hear this summary of what corporations are for (and it seems to be the dominant concept), I wonder, "Is that true? Are corporations just money-making entities?

I'll come back around to this in a bit, for now I'd like to suggest that corporations exist not to make money per se, but to create a valuable product the sale of which will be profitable. That's a distinction with a difference. Most corporations I respect are driven by and inspired by their product, and only secondarily by their profit-margins. And corporations that take pride in their product are often profitable.

Returning to the NPR spot, one way a B Corporation leader describes the difference is as follows: Benefit corporations bake their morals and their missions into the DNA of their companies. They want there to be a positive impact on society, employee welfare, and the environment, from their work.

The tension here, apparently, is that shareholders in corporations may be focused primarily on profits (although I actually question whether even that is true--many shareholders hold shares in companies they value for many reasons in addition to profitability). Nevertheless, enrolling as B Corporations frees or energizes corporations to focus on the societal or environmental impacts of their corporate work, and not just profits.

All of this makes me wonder: What would a charter for Benefit Churches look like?

To answer this question, churches would need to clarify some of the bottom-line criterion corporations are so good at clarifying. For example, if the average corporation exists to make money (or to develop products the sale of which is profitable), what does the average church exist for? What is the equivalent to "profit" for the church?

If regular churches exist for something specific (maintenance, space for shared life and worship together of members), what would the addition of "benefit" look like to the title "church"?

In the NPR spot, there was a focus on how the corporations treated their employees. So we might be called to think about how we treat those who work for the church. Does how the members of the church treat its board, its staff, its primary volunteers, match its morals and missions?

A considerable portion of this does end up having to do with profitability, even in the church. The corporations spotlighted in the NPR piece were profitable corporations. They were able to extend benefits to their employees because of that profitability. The argument then goes that this increases the profitability of the company, because the employees are provided a work environment consonant with the morals and mission of the organization. It is, to a certain degree, chicken and egg, but it's worth our attention.

If denominations were to certify churches as Benefit Churches, what would be on the certification? What does societal or environmental impact look like for the church? Lots of churches want to be a church with a difference, but would there be ways to really measure this difference? Imagine if some of our major denominations developed a certification process for benefit churches, and offered incentives in the direction of becoming certified.

Current B Corp advocacy and legislation focuses especially on people and place. B Corporations are focused on creating value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders, and review how people are impacted by the corporate work (everyone, inclusive of employees, the board, and shareholders/members), and how place is impacted by the corporate work (the land and community in which the corporation is actually situated).

I think this movement is consonant with some other movements currently happening in the church, like New Parish and Slow Church models. I'd love to hear from readers what some of your best practices are for baking morals and mission into the actual DNA of your church.


  1. Profits and "doing good" are not mutually exclusive events. ALL for-profit AND not for profit businesses MUST be profitable ("Not for profit" is an oxymoron in my opinion) to survive. There is constant tension between "more profits" and "more benefits" but that's life. Another example of tension is "too much profit," what is "too much?"

    Anyway, I think this article: helps clarify the definition of a corporation. With this article in mind, I'm not sure how you could retain the value for the investors (stock holders = owners) without being profitable.


  2. A Presbyterian church a place of people's hope and welfare. These churches are playing important role on the society also. being Presbyterian also encompasses a particular theological outlook.