Social innovation has developed largely as a secular field despite its deep historic roots in communities of faith that have quietly and creatively responded to human and societal needs over centuries. It is essential that the faith sector take a place at the table because of the many assets it brings to the goal of solving our world's most pressing problems. Here are a few:
Local presence. One cannot solve problems without deeply understanding them - context, incentives, messy human behavior, etc. Faith communities and institutions sit at the frontlines, backlines, and throughlines of nearly every community in the world. Even where religion is not "organized" in the common sense, one will find beliefs, values, rituals, and keepers or leaders of the wisdom and traditions.
The pure reach of religion is unparalleled. And the relationship is not arms-length. Coca-Cola may have extensive distribution even into remote communities of the world, but it goes there to conduct a commercial transaction. Faith is local, rooted, and relational, influencing and interfacing with the lives of its community members in all their humanity - all their wholeness and all their brokenness - as well as with the beautiful and difficult realities of the communities in which they live. Which is to say that both the global breadth and local depth of knowledge, relationships, trust and influence stewarded by faith communities, in aggregate, has no equivalent.
Unfortunately, of course, these resources are often stewarded for unethical, exploitative or destructive purposes. But the potential of this reach for understanding the social problems we face as communities and society as a whole, for spotting opportunities for change, for empowering people to create change, for spreading successful ideas, for surfacing new ideas… well, it's an innovator's dream.
Global orientation. Many faith institutions are themselves global, or connected to each other via global networks. The communities of believers of many faith traditions transcend borders, with adherents across the globe. Concretely, this means potential data at scale, global collaboration, easy spread of ideas.
But it also means global perspective. Theological frameworks are not inherently limited by geopolitics or nationalism unless political or religious leaders use them as such. The prophets were shaped by their own times and places but were not limited by those places. Their messages spread throughout the world. The communities that shaped religions likewise shaped them in particular times and places, but now those communities often encompass far-flung diasporas.
Too often in our history, social improvement for one population has meant exploitation of another. Especially in our deeply interconnected world, we cannot afford that kind of thinking. We must think systemically and globally, and our solutions must create good for all and for the earth we all share. The nature of faith and its institutions enables that scope of thinking, if we let it.
Lived values. Faith is an identity tied to deep values. The culture wars in the U.S. have stripped the conversation about values, particularly faith values, of its richness, at least in this country. And unfortunately, many of our faith institutions can hardly be considered pillars of values-based leadership. And yet faith communities can be found everywhere taking care of people marginalized by society and fighting for a society that doesn't marginalize people, often sacrificing a lot to do so. Authentic faith provides purpose, and unwavering commitment to purpose provides a solid foundation for weathering the failures that inevitably come with innovation without losing sight of the goal.
Spiritual wisdom. We live in a time when people are desperately seeking meaning. As social media thrives but social capital declines, as technology increasingly seems to be making us obsolete, as change becomes more rapid than ever, our mental health is suffering. We have a multi-billion dollar global wellness industry offering remedies for anxiety and commercializing self-care. In the world of work, more and more employees and employers are exploring purpose as a motivator. It is perhaps not surprising that faith-rooted practices like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have spread rapidly into homes, communities, schools, and workplaces.
But faith communities have more to offer than just techniques. They have thousands of years of wisdom about identity, meaning, and purpose, bred from concern with the human spirit as opposed to material things. And that wisdom often points not to self-care in its commercialized version, but to community - creating and nurturing community, serving community, being community. Identity and meaning rooted in community positions faith communities to lead the way in finding solutions that respond to the deepest individual and societal needs.
Physical and Financial Assets. There's no getting around it, innovation, systemic change, spreading ideas takes resources. Some faith institutions have many resources, others have few, but in aggregate, we all have a lot. A 2016 study estimated the economic value of religion in the U.S. alone at $1.2 trillion. That's right, trillion. Reduce that to just the money spent by congregations on social programs, it's still $9 billion. The Catholic Church alone is one of the largest private landowners in the world, and Catholic health systems are both numerous and some of the largest in the world. Some of the most prominent social organizations in many countries, as well as globally, are also faith-based, including one of the largest non-profit school lunch providers started and run by Hindu monks in India. So while it's very possible your own temple or mosque or synagogue or church can barely keep the lights on, we can think bigger together. A lot bigger.
What other assets does the faith sector bring to social innovation? Send us your thoughts.
Read our previous post, What is Social Innovation?