It’s a late spring day in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I’m standing in front of the Ravoux high rise apartments, a public housing project. When a bright, multicolored bus pulls into the complex, the waiting crowd outside includes several residents. The Twin Cities Mobile Market has arrived. For the past two years, this grocery-store-on-wheels stops at Ravoux every Friday at noon, bringing staples, meat, eggs, dairy, and fresh produce to this “food desert” neighborhood. According to Twin Cities Mobile Market founder Leah Porter, Minneapolis-St. Paul is the fifth worst food desert metro area in the U.S., which leaves thousands of residents without access to a supermarket within one mile of their homes. Porter, who says she knows what it’s like to grow up in a family that struggled to put food on the table, cared about this issue for a long time. She wrote her M.A. thesis about the problem — and outlined how to address it by using a reconfigured city bus. When she floated it with local officials and various community groups, everyone shared her enthusiasm. But moving from an idea to reality required help and investment. Not long after her graduation, a friend of Porter’s saw a TV segment on the Innové Project, social enterprise competition for entrepreneurs under 35, sponsored by Colonial Church in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina. Through Innové, entrepreneurs could pitch their idea for “common good” enterprise, receive technical assistance, and possibly win a financial prize, so Porter applied.
Focusing for greater impact
In the past seven years Colonial’s Innové Project has hosted two competitions, awarding tens of thousands of dollars to 11 social ventures. Porter’s Mobile Market won a 2013 competition. Her pitch at Colonial won a $37,000 start-up grant from the Innové judges, a $3000 bonus award from the congregation, and a $250 award from Colonial’s Sunday School kids. “I think I’m most proud of that $250 award,” Porter says. “It showed us that our pitch was understandable even to kids.” Other winners have included Exodus Lending, an alternative to payday loans stores; The Sheridan Story, which gets weekend food backpacks into the hands of low-income youth from over 100 elementary schools; MATOO (Men Against the Trafficking of Others), which has found its niche in the anti-human trafficking space by addressing the demand side; Launch Ministry, which has established a resource center for homeless teenagers in Minneapolis; and HOYO, a small business employing Somali women in the city to make and sell their tasty native meat pastries called sambusas. Other winners have established new initiatives to help the disabled. Two funded entrepreneurs pitched projects with an international focus. All 11 projects continue in existence and several have grown substantially. Innové emerged from a conversation at Colonial that followed the sale of some land. The congregation wanted to spend the money on missions. “This is a church that has long had a heart to do good in the community and in the world. Missions is a part of our DNA,” former minister of mission Brian Jones explained. Senior minister Daniel Harrell had the idea of a competition. He’d previously been part of an effort to fund ideas from college students while working at Park Street Church in Boston. “Minneapolis is like the Silicon Valley of nonprofit entrepreneurship,” he says. That, combined with the wealth of marketplace talent he knew existed in Colonial’s pews, made a social enterprise competition a good fit. “We had this windfall of money and it allowed us to ask: ‘What do we want to do in our next season of mission?’” Harrell recalled. He and Jones agreed that whatever it was, it should seek a greater impact than some of the more traditional things the church had been doing. They wanted a concentrated focus rather than a diffused strategy of giving a little money to many ministries. And they wanted the congregation to get personally involved. “I was interested in trying to answer the question, ‘What might we be called to do as a congregation that we couldn’t do as individuals?’” He said. “And it seemed like we should start by trying to figure it out as a congregation.”
One of the things about the Innové model that Harrell was most excited about was that it would provide practical opportunities for the white-collar professionals in the congregation to be personally engaged in mission, deploying their skills as executives, graphic designers, finance experts, lawyers, and accountants. Testimonies like that of Jeff Siemon, were music to Harrell’s ears. Siemon, who holds a senior position in finance at General Mills, served as the navigator for Anna Brelje and her team, which was interested in offering an alternative to payday lending. “Since I work in finance, Anna’s project felt like it would be a good fit,” Siemon says. “And I just really loved the idea. Payday lending is a huge problem in the community and a really big thing to wrestle with. I was excited by the challenge.” For Siemon, The Innové Project was a huge success in terms of really mobilizing and deploying the talents of congregants. And he loved how it made missions so personal and participatory:
Just writing a check or giving money in the donation plate is one thing, but actually participating… in a more real, tangible way—I thought that was really profound. And I certainly saw that all the way through the Innové process as different people in the congregation were engaged in different parts of the process and different phases, whether it was as Navigators or the people who were screening the applications, or the skills coaches that brought so many different capabilities and skills to bear.
During the first competition, more than 170 of Colonial’s roughly 450 regular attenders served in some capacity. Congregants took it upon themselves to raise about half of the funds needed for Innové’s second round.
Harrell says when he first began sharing his idea among Colonial’s members, he heard some pushback that was rooted in a suspicion of getting the church “mixed up with business.” But Harrell argued that Innové wasn’t running the risk of the church serving Mammon rather than God. Instead, as he told a journalist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “To leverage capital for the sake of service is a powerful thing.” Harrell believes businesses are efficient at allocating time and capital — and that the good some for-profits do can dwarf the social impact of the same amount of money granted to traditional philanthropies. In the end, Innové didn’t end up funding that many for-profit ventures, mainly because most applicants pitched nonprofits. But many of the winners incorporated the discipline of the market in their plans. Porter’s Mobile Market, for example, is committed to becoming largely self-sufficient over the next few years through its food sales. She appreciated Colonial’s unique approach with Innové:
Too many churches just focus on charity. There’s a need for that, of course. But our work as a whole has to shift. Colonial rightly was looking to invest for a return. I hope other churches will follow their lead.