Nilima Achwal

SOCAP11: Spirituality and Social Enterprise

On Thursday morning, SOCAP11 broached a powerful underlying motivator for many in the social enterprise space, but a motivator that is often swept under the rug, unspoken, taboo, or even a white elephant in the room: spirituality. For many reasons-wanting to restrict ourselves to hard business language for legitimacy, wanting to be inclusive, and others-many in our field feel uncomfortable speaking about their spiritual or religious beliefs, though they are often strong motivators for joining this space.

A thoughtful panel of leaders at SOCAP11 opened the dialogue: Alex Hofmann of Changents, Sai Giambanco of Omidyar Network, Lisa Lepson of Joshua Venture Group, Matt Flannery of Kiva, Ashwini Narayanan of MicroPlace, and Firas Ahmad of Emergence BioEnergy. Together, the panel encompassed a wide variety of faiths.

The values, the empathy, and the drive to do good-commonly accepted characteristics of social entrepreneurs-sometimes have their roots in religious or spiritual foundations. Indeed, some many argue that until the majority begins to embrace their own spirituality-whatever that may mean to a given individual-we will not see a vast wide-spread movement toward social impact (analogous to the civil rights movement in the U.S.)

“What we have lost is our authenticity. We are simply operating at the surface,” said MicroPlace’s Narayanan. “Until we get back what we lost-the connection to our authenticity-we’re never going to create a world that’s different. The transformation happens when we operate at a deeper level and ask ourselves, ’who are we’?”

Ahmad, of Emergence BioEnergy, noted that often people are reluctant to speak about their beliefs in fear of being seen as an extremist. In contrast, he has noticed that prophets from religious texts were often those who worked at the periphery of society, lifting up the disenfranchised-much like social entrepreneurs. “Change comes from the periphery,” he said.

Matt Flannery brought up the “dualism” of money and meaning in everyday life-we have a part of our lives that is “meaningful” and a part that is not. This is a commonly accepted division of time, money, energy, and resources. “When we can do away with that dualism, we will be able to unleash a massive amount of capital for social good,” he explained.

This reminded me of another quote from earlier in SOCAP-“Market return on investment is a hollow concept-it assumes unbridled destruction of the environment and communities. Let’s think about a reasonable return on a meaningful investment-that would nourish both the community and the investor.”

Once we can shift the paradigm to “transcend the dual questions,” as Narayanan put it, the questions will start coming from a system of meaning. Because right now, the very questions we ask (“Can I get a market rate on this investment?”) are born from a system that is devoid of meaning.

In closing, Omidyar’s Giambianco started thinking about the path forward, where people could tap into their inner motivators but find a common interface for communication. He found that “a story can be universal, but language is exclusionary.” Real, human stories can unite and inspire people with a diversity of inner drivers to speak with a common voice and share a common vision.

I ask readers: Is the status quo working? Should we continue to restrict our conversation to “the hard stuff,” ignoring spirituality as a driving motivator for many who work in social enterprise? If not, how can we recognize these motivators and use them to unleash a socio-political movement for good across the world?

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social enterprise