God’s Economy: A New Way To Think About Alleviating Poverty

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This week PLF had the pleasure of partnering with the Acton Institute and Tugg Media for a screening of the award winning documentary, Poverty, Inc. The screening was followed by an informative time of Q&A with co-producer Mark Weber, to a sold-out crowd of 156 people. 

This documentary takes a critical look at the “poverty industry” and raises thoughtful questions on whether international aid is actually working to alleviate poverty.

The antithesis of traditional poverty media, this film elevates the world class endeavors of enterprising individuals in our countries and highlights the critical need to restore power in the hands of everyday people by democratizing access to networks of productivity and exchange, and by building the fundamental institutions of justice such as property rights, rule of law, and freedom. -Dr. Kinoti Meme

For PLF, the alleviation of poverty through job-creation and supporting entrepreneurship is very close to the heart of our own mission to equip, connect, and mobilize individuals and organizations in Pittsburgh to create a more robust and inclusive economy.

Poverty, Inc. illuminates the “business” of NGO’s and global aid organizations as they negatively impact the people in countries where they intend to help, creating unhealthy dependencies. Many insights of the film can be applied to our own cities where aid has become normative in vulnerable communities, causing a widening gap in the economic flourishing among all socio-economic groups.

The film creates a powerful awareness of the challenging realities that people face when trying to contribute meanigful work amidst an economic system that doesn’t fully recognize the value of the human person.  

How should we respond differently in the way we approach charity and poverty alleviation?

It’s time to recognize and seek the positive contributions that all citizens can make to the economy. Whether in Pittsburgh or abroad, we must work to foster an economic system that invites people across all socio economic strata to participate.

To arrange a viewing of this fantastic film, visit www.PovertyInc.org.

Amazon: Easy to Critique, Easier to One-Click

This article was originally published on The Gospel Coalition website.

Last week I received an e-mail from one of my clients, a CEO who hired us to launch a culture change initiative for his executive team. Linking to The New York Times scathing exposé on Amazon’s corporate culture, he simply wrote, “This is the opposite of what we want to create.”

The public response to the story was immediate and visceral. One publication said Amazon had “a sweatshop-like culture.” Another noted its work-life balance score: 2.6 out of 5. In a memo to his employees, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos went into damage control mode, saying he didn’t recognize the company portrayed in the article.

Although the exposé is being criticized as based on “generalization and anecdote” and a more complete picture is emerging, an important question for all of us arises: If a company is meeting our needs as customers, why should we concern ourselves with how they run their business?

Greatest Place I Hate to Work

Amazon has exactly the culture it intended to create. Unlike many companies, where creativity and innovation is characterized by ping pong tables, buffet lunches, and spa treatments, Amazon seems stark. It doesn’t boast the typical perks and benefits of other tech firms because itvalues frugality.

It also values confidence and competence. As one journalist notes, “Bezos abhors what he calls ‘social cohesion,’ the natural impulse to seek consensus . . . and he has codified this approach in one of Amazon’s 14 leadership principles [Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit].”

Bezos isn’t a hypocrite. He’s never been coy about the kind of culture he wants to create. His leadership principles include an intense focus on “constant friction” and “adversarial competition” in which employees simultaneously feel frustrated and proud. One former executive writes, “A lot of people who work there feel this tension: it’s the greatest place I hate to work.”

Purpose of Business

Bezos understands the market. Since the 1970s we’ve seen increased focus in businesses on maximizing shareholder value. By that standard, Amazon is successful. Last month, it surpassed Walmart in market capitalization, making it the most valuable retailer in the country. In August 2005, one share of Amazon was worth $43; this year, it’s worth almost $500. If profit is purpose, then Amazon’s doing quite well.

What if, though, human flourishing is the main purpose of business? In Why Business Matters to God: And What Still Needs to Be Fixed, professor Jeff Van Duzer describes a “Genesis” model for business, where business is a means to steward all that God has entrusted to the care of his image bearers:

[A]s stewards of God’s creation, business leaders should manage their businesses (1) to provide the community with goods and services that will enable it to flourish, and (2) to provide opportunities for meaningful work that will allow employees to express their God-given creativity.

Some competitors of Amazon have taken a different route to success. Hearts & Minds, an independent bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, is owned and operated by Byron and Beth Borger. Their craft goes well beyond stocking and shipping. They want to accomplish Van Duzer’s two purposes of business. The value they create isn’t primarily in their transactions but in their relationships, as they serve their customers by writing delightful reviews, curating book lists to help customers grow in their love for God and understanding of vocation, and hosting gatherings for readers and writers.

Real Culprit

We may publicly condemn large companies like Amazon and praise small businesses like Hearts & Minds. But when it comes to buying our books and placing our orders, we usually go with the company that offers the fastest and cheapest option—without regard for how it treats it employees.

Who, then, is to blame for “bruising” workplaces, where people are treated like cogs in a machine rather than humans created in God’s image? It may very well be us, the consumers.

Knowledge Creates Responsibility

As an Amazon Prime customer, I contribute to the corporate culture Bezos has created and encouraged. I’m “implicated,” as my friend Steve Garber might say, by what I know. The only question, then, is “What must I do?”

First, I might consider working for Amazon as one of its more than 115,000 employees. After all, since God became man, leaving the riches of glory to enter the messy world of human beings, I can work as salt and light in places of darkness. I can be an agent of hope in a difficult work environment.

Second, I might thoughtfully consider changing my shopping habits, choosing to frequent businesses that value and invest in human flourishing. My small changes may not make a difference to the overall economy, but they might play a part in bringing together my “inner” and “outer” person (Matt. 23:27).

Finally, I might consider building or running—or encouraging my friends to build or run—a company in ways that celebrate a culture that values people as image bearers. This is one thing I hope to do with my clients. In our last meeting with the CEO who hired us to launch a corporate culture change, he remarked:

We’re too proud of our financial success. Our investors love our return on investment (ROI), but our employees and our customers don’t feel valued. I’m not motivated by money; I never have been. I’m here for the people. I’m inviting you to join me to make this a place where people love to work and customers love to buy, where human lives and relationships are valued above all else.

I’ve asked the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation (PLF) to work with us to create a culture where safety is our priority, excellence is our standard, and character is valued above expedience. But I can’t do this alone. Will you join me?

Healthy cultures are deeply intentional and develop over time when we implement values and invest in good people, processes, and environments. They needn’t be lavish, but they must value people for who they are, not simply what they do.

Gathering, Equipping, and Coaching at PLF with Terry Collier

Terry CollierOur friend and long-time board member, Terry Collier, finished his term on our board in June. Terry has been on the board since 1991, and we wanted to get some insight from him on where PLF has been and where we are going.

Emily: What motivated you to get involved with PLF?

Terry: My great motivation is to help people find their great purpose in service of God. God will ask what have you done with what I’ve called you to do, and I want Him to be able to say well done good and faithful servant. I believe it was Reid who once said, “God calls us for a purpose and a place.” I believe Reid has been very helpful in helping me identify my great purpose. It is easy to become very inward looking, and PLF forces you to keep your head up and looking around and finding out what God is doing in our city, in the country, and in the world. This awareness helps you serve with more vigor.

Emily: How have you seen PLF evolve over the years?

Terry: PLF from its beginning has gathered, equipped, and coached. We have worked with people and organizations to achieve the common good in accordance with Biblical principles. Over the years this has taken many forms. We have been led by Reid Carpenter, the great gatherer; John Stahl-Wert, the passionate equipper; and now by Lisa Slayton, the insightful coach.

Emily: How do you see Lisa’s role as the insightful coach impacting PLF?

Terry: Lisa is a good identifier of the strength in people, which helps them better perform in roles. By doing that, she’s hired fantastic staff and recruited board members who are insightful and brought success in the organizations. We haven’t forgotten that we still have to gather to raise money, but we still need to equip, educate, and coach people in doing something that they’ve learned. Then they will gather out of a sense of gratefulness. Gathering will raise money, but does not necessarily equip. She keeps her eyes open to what the Lord wants to do.

Emily: What advice do you have for PLF in the future?

Terry: As we move on we should be careful to keep prayer at the center of all the organization says and does. We need to remain faithful to the organization’s call and purpose and keep our communication clear and simple. We also need to approach our donors, those who serve, and those we serve with humility, clarity of expectations, faithfulness in delivery and a sense of gratefulness. PLF was created by Reid Carpenter as led by God. May we continue, such that the organization’s purpose is fulfilled.

Emily: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about your experience and thoughts about PLF. What do you plan on doing next?

Terry: My focus is for the Homewood community. I attend Bethany Baptist church and serve on the leadership team. We are in the process of raising funds to build a new sanctuary to do more ministry in the community. Our focus is to work in the community, and I am doing a lot of what I was doing with PLF. I want to help kids in the community find their great purpose and connect them to the resources they need to do that.

Photo credits: Dollar Photo Clubwww.colliercpa.com

Culture Matters, So Does Leadership

55% of Startups fail in the first 3 years. Forbes 11.28.12
The Venture Capital Secret: 3 out of 4 startups fail. Wall Street Journal 9.9.12
Change efforts fail over 70% of the time- Why? Fast Company 12.29.10
Leading Change: Why transformation fails. Harvard Business Review Jan. 2007

So what do startups and organizational change initiatives have in common? By the headlines above, we might deduce it is their failure rate.  Fair enough. But the ones that succeed have some common themes as well. Well thought out business plans? Sufficient financial investment?  Flexible strategies?  Great product or service? Perhaps.  But findings demonstrate that while these elements are necessary, they are insufficient.

After gathering a whole series of articles on startup failures and looking at volumes of research on change failure, at the risk of oversimplifying the causes, it really boils down to two primary factors: Organizational Culture and Leadership. In today’s post we will look at organizational culture. Several upcoming posts unpack leadership and its impact on organizational flourishing.

Culture is that nebulous thing that creates the environment where people work and live and the experience that all stakeholders have when interacting internally and externally within the culture (think Starbucks or Apple). This can be true of families, villages, countries and organizations. Perhaps the very best, simple definition of what culture is comes from Riding the Waves of Culture; “Culture is the way in which a group of people solves problems and reconciles dilemmas.”[1]

When it comes to organizations there are really 3 kinds of culture:

  • Unintentional- the culture exists, everyone knows it but it is not easily describable. It sounds like “that is just the way we do things around here.”
  • Hypocritical- the culture has been defined, usually by a set of articulated values and mission that hang on the wall. But when it gets down to decision making those values are rarely invoked. It sounds like, “yeah that is what they say we value, but everyone knows that it is really_____.”

If either of the above cultures are in place, the implications are very similar— people cannot make good decisions about those things that impact their daily work and the culture breeds reactivity and fear.

  • Intentional – the culture has been formed by a set of embodied values that everyone can relate to their everyday responsibilities; decision making is pushed out to the fingertips of the organization.  It sounds like “I am empowered to make decisions everyday about the things that matter most to me and to the organization.”

Well thought out valuesthe HOW—that have been operationalized and that drive decision making are foundational bedrock for healthy organizational cultures. Everyone, including the most senior leaders in the organization must be submitted to the values and be willing to be held accountable to them,

The second and oft missed cultural success factor is helping people increasingly move into roles that align to not just  their skills but also their passions and strengths in mutually interdependent teams. This idea of helping people get into their “sweet spots” in service to the organization and their teams is the WHO.

At Serving Leaders we look at these elements—the WHO and the HOW—of culture through a grid of alignment and intentionality:

  • Aligned people—those who are doing those things that they are most passionate—about  working in an unintentional or hypocritical culture breeds Discouragement; employees show up every day willing to bring their A game and the culture disempowers them at every turn.
  • An intentional culture where people are not well aligned in their role breeds Burnout; the culture may be great but there is no one paying attention to helping people align into roles that they can thrive in.
  • Both misalignment and hypocritical culture breed Toxicity; in this environment employees are box-checkers and rely on an elite few to make all the decisions.
  • Well-aligned employees working with others in environments that empowers them to make decisions and offer their very best contribution is a Healthy, Flourishing Culture.

These are cultures of engagement and the result is high performance. Marks of a healthy organizational culture are one:

  • where relationships and results are both evident.
  • where employees are bringing their discretionary effort.
  • where innovation is occurring and intelligent risk-taking is encouraged.
  • where failure is celebrated .
  • where people are treated, not as a means to an end, but as an end unto themselves.
  • and where excellence is valued over success.

Whether you are in startup mode and may be a small team ( even a team of 1) or you are part of a much larger organization that is growing and implementing change initiatives, just remember Culture—the  integration of the WHO and theHOW—eats Strategy for lunch every time.


[1] Riding the Waves of Culture by Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner

The Great Purpose of Entrepreneurship with Calvin Chin

Serving Leaders was pleased to welcome Calvin Chin, Director of the Entrepreneurship Initiative at the Center for Faith & Work, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City to Pittsburgh on May 16th at our Breakfast on the Great Purpose of Entrepreneurship. As we prepared for Calvin’s visit, we asked him to consider some questions about the work of Redeemer and its Center for Faith & Work. Here are a few thoughtful insights from Calvin.


How does a Center for Faith & Work help to realize the Redeemer Vision?

Redeemer was founded on a vision of “The Gospel Changes Everything!” It changes individuals, communities, and the world so that we have different values, intentions, and results.

Redeemer has done this by teaching us to live out the gospel in real and tangible ways—Jeremiah 29:7—so that our lives that are fully integrated, spiritually and practically.

In New York City, the identity people take from their work is much more pronounced than the rest of the country. Tim Keller tackled that first by preaching from the pulpit about the importance of cultural renewal and that work we do in the marketplace is part of cultural renewal and we must recognize that work is good but because of the fall is broken and distorted. The traditional thinking of the Christian is that work (toil and labor) is just something to do while we wait for Christ to come back or until we die and go to heaven. But this is unbiblical thinking—work is what most of us do for a large part of our waking hours and it is a vital part of renewing culture.

Also, we know that work is extremely important but it cannot be the thing we rest our worth and hope on; it is very easy to make work an idol. So even before the Center for Faith & Work was created in 2002, there were ad-hoc programs early on to help people see how God cares about their work and how their work is part of worship. The Bible supports the importance of work but as a mandate God gave us rather than the foundation we rest our hope in.

The CFW’s tag line is to Equip, Connect, and Mobilize.

  • Equip – theologically and practically,
  • Connect – people in the marketplace who feel isolated or ineffective and need touch points with other believers to remind them of their mission
  • Mobilize – by being equipped and having community inside and outside of the church community, they can be the best possible worker, boss, manager or partner as they go about influencing in their role.

Why would a church make a decision to invest in entrepreneurs?

After CFW started showing some real traction in starting great conversations about why we work so hard and what is work’s purpose in our lives and the biblical narrative of redemption, we realized something profound and deeply rooted in the Gospel. While the gospel can transform people into excellent employees and senior corporate leaders, institutions are harder to change because, as Mike Novak shared, they are living organisms with fallen people running the show and carrying out legacy practices. An intentionally integrated Christian is limited in the change they can affect even if they rise to become CEO and are in positions of significant influence.

We believe that Entrepreneurs by nature are missional! Entrepreneurs can create and run new ventures and from day one they can infuse the gospel in to its mission and practice. From the vision, to the products and services, to the organizational culture and values and to the way they engage themselves. Biblically, entrepreneurs embody the creative spirit of God. Entrepreneurs want to solve problems, meet unmet needs, or do things better or in a new way, they are all about rearranging the particulars into something new that creates value and opportunity. They are true missionaries in the marketplace trying to make Jesus Christ real and tangible to their neighbors.

What sets gospel centered entrepreneurship apart?

Gospel centered entrepreneurship is about the end result and the motivation – why we are doing it and where does it lead? Similarly, with your job and career – why are you doing it matters as much as how you are doing it. If the gospel is the center and foundation of every little thing you do then you will be will energized, emboldened, and supported—regardless  of the outcome.

Gospel centered entrepreneurship also points toward the redemptive love of Christ in that being involved in an entrepreneurial venture is a spiritual and physical sacrifice. The big uncertainty in entrepreneurship is always –will it fail or succeed.  Someone who has the gospel as the center of their life and their venture will be able to deal with the journey and outcome in a much more loving and joyful way. Meaning, they can let go and take comfort in how God’s spirit used them to glorify Him and the other way around.


For more information about The Ei and the Center for Faith and Work and Redeemer go www.faithandwork.org


Photo credit: Dollar Photo Club

Lisa Slayton named President of Serving Leaders

lisa_slaytonWe are proud to announce that on April 12th, the Serving Leaders Board of Directors named Lisa Slayton to the role of President of Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation/Serving Leaders

“We believe that great leadership is a key capability for high performing organizations and for a flourishing city.  That’s why we are excited to be launching a new chapter of collaboration and partnership to grow our collective leadership horsepower for the good of our city.  We are thrilled that Lisa will be leading this charge,” says board chair, Darrin Grove, CEO of TrueFit.

Slayton has worked at Serving Leaders since 2005 when she was hired to design the Leaders Collaborative program.  In the years since, she has continued to head the Leaders Collaborative effort, while also building an organizational development consulting business at Serving Leaders.  She has cultivated key partnerships with other local and national organization

In 2012, she completed her Masters of Arts in Social & Civic Entrepreneurship through Bakke Graduate University.  Slayton’s interest in entrepreneurship, combined with Serving Leaders’ history of helping great things get started in Pittsburgh will guide our next phase of growth and development. s to create programs focused on integration of faith and work in theory and in practice.

Slayton offers, “This year Serving Leaders celebrates 35 years of investment in Pittsburgh to meet the needs of our city and its leaders through the lens of our Christian faith.  We are mindful of our rich history in starting and launching social sector ventures.  More recently our focus has been to connect, equip and mobilize leaders to help them awaken great purpose in themselves and in the organizations they serve for the common good of Pittsburgh.  We believe that intentionally helping entrepreneurs in all sectors to build ventures around healthy organizational cultures—cultures that allow people to do great work they love—will be a blessing to Pittsburgh.  We are excited to apply our learning from years of working with leaders and organizations to the unique challenges facing entrepreneurs.  Investing deeply in entrepreneurial leaders will leverage our 35 year history of serving leaders for the sake of Pittsburgh—and I am honored to lead this effort.”