Piggybacking on a thoughtful blog recently posted by Hugh Whelchel titled Can Work be Truly Meaningful?, I’d like to explore how people seek satisfaction in their Jobs. There are apparently only 19 percent of the adult workforce that claim that they are extremely satisfied by their work (Barna Group research in 2014). I’ve noticed that today there are many approaches being offered by businesses for those seeking to find deeper fulfillment and satisfaction in whatever their “work” might be. With so many options available, why is it that deep satisfaction is still so illusory?
In their very helpful book, Business for the Common Good, Kenman Wong and Scott Rae survey this range of options which people in business pursue to further the notion that their business provides a “social good.” The contribution of this social good is also designed to help them give the leaders, employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders in the business a reason to feel a stronger sense of purpose and meaning in their work.
The Bible gives many examples of private business owners being encouraged to serve public needs from their work, not the least of which were the Old Testament “gleaning” principles required of farmers to leave some of their field’s harvest for the poor and needy (ref. Leviticus 19:9-10).
Models for Responsible Businesses
Historically, Rae and Wong point to CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) where businesses defined their responsibilities in terms of either “doing no harm” to their stakeholders or communities in their regular course of business, or they added a charitable giving component. We often referred to as “community give-back” during my career in large aero-space companies. Expanded versions of this seek to incorporate “multiple bottom lines” to make theircompany objectives more comprehensive and explicitly more socially responsible.
For example, McDonald’s large market to children led to their development and sponsorship of Ronald McDonald houses near hospitals to care for the families of children with serious illnesses. They also began to shift their product offerings to more healthy versions due to internal and external pressure to lessen the burden of childhood obesity from the influence of unhealthy fast food.
Multiple Bottom Lines
Multiple-bottom lines has expanded to concerns such as the effect of business on the environment, the working conditions of out-sourced manufacturing, and inclusion and promotion of neglected or marginalized groups of people within the company itself. These concerns have fostered the growth of many newer business models which Wong and Rae highlight. The BOP (Bottom or Base of the Pyramid) movement among larger corporations promotes selling to poorer customers through “culturally sensitive, environmentally sustainable, and economically profitable ways.”
Social Enterprises are the very trendy business models for smaller and mid-size businesses which Wong and Rae describe as seeking to “make business an even more direct and proactive partner in solving social problems.” This model expands the concept of social goods and services from being only the responsibility of churches, non-profit charities, NGOs (Non-government Organizations) or government agencies. Social entrepreneurs are “driven by a double bottom line, a virtual blend of financial and social returns.” Profits are not the only or even main goal of the business and they are intentionally reinvested in the “social good” goal and not just distributed to traditional stakeholders and owners.
Microfinance, Business as Mission and several other categories and their variants with more socially conscious business models also have been innovated and are continuing to emerge.
Today’s Emerging Workforce
All these models demonstrate a growing sense of responsibility and hunger among the millennials and even younger generations to contribute and invest themselves in their life’s work in ways that deeply resonate with the clear messages they were brought up with. “You need to creatively follow your dream and passion and make the world a better place in whatever you do.” I’m always amazed and inspired by both Christians and non-Christians at their passion and willingness to sacrifice to achieve these ends. In many ways they make me feel like a corporate curmudgeon and challenge me to take more risks and consider new approaches to business.
In fact I had lunch recently with just such a wonderful and passionate young Christian woman who is dedicating her career to helping social entrepreneurs create successful businesses and better understand the benefits of socially responsible work.
While the new trends and creative work being done is exciting and inspiring, all of the models described above have much good to offer. Yet each model can be also fraught with its own pitfalls. Context and careful application of biblical principles are very important in discerning where and how one model is most helpful or whether the opportunities are a “good fit” for the business.
We want to avoid, as Wong and Rae point out, the business models that are used less to promote true social responsibility and more to advance a public relations campaign. For example, a company with a focus on establishing a “presence in poor or underserved communities” sometimes end up exploiting the resources and neglecting the real needs of these communities. This is done while promoting the “mirage” of a good corporate image.
We must also consider that not everyone is an entrepreneur. Most of us will not create start-ups, join small creative businesses with innovative models for addressing social ills, or be part of the non-profit world. Nor should we feel we need to in order to “really make a difference.” We have to be careful not to be unintentionally setting up yet another unbiblical hierarchy of work when we’ve gone to such great lengths in the faith and work movement to break down these unhealthy secular vs. sacred distinctions and hierarchies.
Another caution is to consider the complexity of many of the social problems we face and not minimize the work required and skill needed to understand the root causes and best solutions to mitigating the ills and suffering in our cities. We want to avoid unintended consequences of our actions and study cases such as the Tom’s shoes controversy and many others which offer helpful insights to consider when promoting new socially responsible businesses.
The Best Bottom Line
As we reflect on what makes our work significant, we are reminded that any business model can provide an opportunity to produce significant social goods and promote better practices. Yet true satisfaction comes by not just considering the opportunities at hand, but rather seeking the source of true satisfaction. As Hugh Whelchel points out, we must ask ourselves better questions about what makes our jobs satisfying or meaningful. “Meaningful to whom?” Is our pursuit of significant work trapping us in the illusion that some specific category of work or business model is more spiritual or intrinsically more valuable than others? Whelchel poignantly states:
For the Christian, life without work is meaningless, but work must never become the meaning of one’s life. We must find our identity in Christ, not in our work.
Our union with Christ transforms our hearts and gives us the desire to serve him out of gratitude as we engage the world through our work.
This is where we find meaning, because through our role as God’s image bearers we are to bring him glory regardless of what type of work we do. All of our work is meant to glorify God and serve the common good.
Our work in any business model or institution gives us a concrete way to glorify God by fulfilling his purposes for us and giving expression to his love for all of creation. Blessed be the worker who finds, in whatever type of work they serve, that their work is not the source of identity, but rather a very tangible expression of their identity in Christ.
Steve Lindsey is the Executive Director of the Center for Faith & Work Los Angeles. As an engineer at Boeing for nearly 40 years, he often struggled to see how his work served God’s greater purpose for the world. He and his wife Margaret established the CFWLA in 2017 to help people reframe vocation and understand how all work, no matter the industry, has meaning and purpose.