The Power of Investment Gleaning

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Lawrence Sheffield started Magic City Woodworks to help young men in inner city Birmingham bridge the gap between idleness and meaningful work. They offer a one-year paid apprenticeship training men to be teachable, to gain character, and to gain skills that will serve them in future employment. While product sales are an important and growing component of Magic City Woodwork’s revenue, their mission to employ marginalized, unskilled young men means they will not be as profitable as a traditional furniture company. Donations and low-profit investments help make protect the organization’s ability to focus on job and life training central to its mission.

Would loaning money to this company at less than market-rate interest be a bad investment? Many well-meaning investors are split on questions like this. Some argue that profit maximization is always the goal. More profit, more impact, right? And often that’s the line that secular impact investing keeps feeding us. A major study by the Global Impact Investing Network suggests there’s no trade-off between profit and impact.

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Does that need to be our definition of success too? Or does our faith compel us to a different standard? In Scripture we see at least 4 uses of capital commended: direct aid, tithing, market-rate investing, and gleaning. We are familiar with the first three — charity, tithing and traditional investing for return. To be clear, all of these are worthy of our effort and money. I love investing for market-rate financial return but gleaning deserves more attention. If we want to make a dent in global poverty through our investments, we must become more familiar with this ancient practice.

Remember how Ruth gathered at the edges of Boaz’s field? Boaz was following the command from Leviticus to allow for gleaning.

The Theology of Work Project explains:

“Gleaning is a process in which landowners have an obligation to provide poor and marginalized people access to the means of production (in Leviticus, the land) and to work it themselves. Unlike charity, it does not depend on the generosity of landowners. In this sense, it was much more like a tax than a charitable contribution. Also, unlike charity, it was not given to the poor as a transfer payment. Through gleaning, the poor earned their living the same way as the landowners did, by working the fields with their own labors. It was simply a command that everyone had a right to access the means of provision created by God.”

Our economies may not be as ag centric anymore, but gleaning nevertheless is instructive for all of us because gleaning has to do with “provision” rather than harvesting crops.

In fact, there are plenty of you in this room practicing modern-day gleaning within your own businesses. One of you has a business inside a prison, providing jobs and dignity and reducing recidivism. One of you operates a cattle feed lot, slaughterhouse, and distribution business in Ethiopia to provide jobs and access to the global economy for local families.

I’ve observed that it’s sometimes easier to practice gleaning within our own companies than it is to understand how to do it as investors. For over a decade I’ve worked with generous families of wealth helping them steward their philanthropic capital for maximum positive effect. What about these families, for whom the “field” that they’ve been given to work is managing philanthropic capital? How are we to think about the concept of “gleaning”?

I think many are afraid to consider “investment gleaning” because it seems that accepting less than full market rate return is the purview of the unsophisticated. If I lend money at 8% when everyone else is getting 15%, doesn’t that make me the fool in the room? Others fear that it provides an excuse for lack of excellence from the entrepreneur.

Those things certainly could be causes of poor returns, but that’s not what gleaning entails. True gleaning involves excellence, access, work and sacrifice.

In ancient times, a farmer leaving some of his fields unharvested meant he had to be even more efficient, more effective with the portions he was working. In order to make enough to feed their family and follow the command to leave room for the poor to glean at the edges, God’s people had to be the very best farmers around. Excellence is always a hallmark of gleaning.

The next two items go together. Gleaning means access for the poor and marginalized. Access isn’t the same as a handout. Access to the means of production means wages for work. I would never advocate for eliminating charity, but I do fear that if we aren’t creating pathways to employment through our philanthropic capital then we may be doing more harm than good. If you’ve been to Haiti, you’ve seen this first-hand. There are instances where aid given to the poor and marginalized can create access – scholarships for education or career training are a great example. So is aid in the context of a disaster or mass displacement. But at some point we need to begin asking when “access” looks more like a job than a gift.

Sacrifice is the least glamorous hallmark of gleaning. It’s also the scariest. What looks like sacrifice to others often feels like simple obedience to the person making the sacrifice. Maybe its time to rethink our risk/return paradigm. If God is omnipotent, His return horizon is eternal, and we’re just His money-managers, then really the only meaningful risk we encounter is disobedience. When we get to the pearly gates, I don’t think He’s going to ask us whether we got a 15% IRR or beat our benchmarks. I am confident, though, that the ways in which we provide for His children who are poor and marginalized will be remembered.

POSTSCRIPT

I had the privilege of presenting my white paper at the recent Christian Economic Forum. I’m sharing my written comments in the hopes that it may spark a conversation in our community. After CEF, Christianity Today ran a story about how gleaning can transform modern CSR efforts.

Bruce Baker and Tom Parks share many stories of businesses carrying out the biblical practice of gleaning in their article in Christianity Today. It’s a worthy read and it caused me to add an attribute of gleaning that I’d left out of my talk at CEF. They point out that there’s another significant attribute of gleaning that I left out: transformation through relationship. A job, by itself, rarely brings about the kind of story-book, radical life change that we hope when we set out. A decent job plus healthy relationships along with life-skills coaching and the Gospel - in word and deed - often can.

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