At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square

Making A Profit: An Unexpected Way to Help Others

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Most high school boys don’t get sent to detention for their computer coding skills. At least, that’s not the crowd I picture filling the principal’s office on a given afternoon.

Breakfast Club-esque images of nonchalant, yet slightly edgy, teens bonding over punishment for minor misdemeanors come to mind first, not tech-savvy, budding entrepreneurs. But, in Bill Gates’s case, exploiting a school computer’s programming glitch to get more computer time temporarily banned him from access to his high school’s computers.

Undeterred, Gates and  his friends offered to their skills to the company supplying the school’s computers once their access to the computers was reinstated. Instead of exploiting glitches, this time the boys debugged the program, and strengthened the existing product.  At the same time, they applied their skills to creating a payroll program for the computer company and a scheduling program for the school.

Gates’s early passion for computers and programming found a productive outlet that grew from a young boy’s antics into a multi-billion dollar enterprise. According to Forbes, Gates and his wife Melinda are currently worth about $72 billion, having hovered near the top of Forbes’ annual list of the top 400 wealthiest people since Gates’s debut as a billionaire in 1987.

This productive creativity and fabulous wealth has led, in turn, to enormous philanthropy. As of December 2013, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had given away $28 billion.

It’s an illustration of how profit can make philanthropy possible, and if we’re serious about helping others, we’ll take note.

The Potential of Profit

Profit is simply a measurement. It is feedback sent to producers in response to a service or product.

From it, we can gauge whether or not to continue production of that service or item. Some fear that because profit is a result of self-interested action, it may be an inappropriate expression of greed. But, as Rev. Robert Sirico explains in a recent post,

Earning a profit is an indication that things are going as planned in meeting the needs of clients, and conversely, that when a profit is not attained, something is going wrong.

Gates was not shy in his pursuit of his passion for computers and innovation. Rather, he recognized that his skills were a valuable solution to a shortcoming, and he set about to meet that need.

For many Christians, earning a profit may not seem to be a remarkable end in and of itself. However, pursuing profit is essential if we are to serve others through our talents and the activity of trade.

We create wealth as we invest our resources in productive ways to create products valued by consumers in the market. From that profit-seeking activity we can then invest in others philanthropically.

To help others requires extra resources that we can give away. This can only happen when we successfully acquire profit. Not only can we meet needs through mutually beneficial market transactions, but we are then better equipped to help those who cannot engage in profitable exchange. Charitable gifts and investments are very effective, but to give much, we must earn much.

A World without the Cultural Mandate

In a world where we are not all Christians, we can’t assume that everyone will feel the same call to care for the poor that Christians understand. A Christian’s motivation stems from the commands and examples we receive in the Bible.

We are called to be fruitful and multiply, to make disciples, to be faithful with our resources, and to serve others well. Philanthropy is a logical extension of these callings.

Yet for those who do not perceive these calls, they can still serve others through the market process in which the pursuit of profit is a way to bring prosperity to others. It’s a powerful illustration of common grace.

By earning profit, we can, as Christians, more effectively engage our world. In the pursuit of profit we all become better aware of the most effective ways we can serve each other with our unique God-given talents and creativity. Through profit we are enabled and empowered to use our excess resources to engage our world philanthropically.

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  • Great thoughts, Anne!

    Unfortunately, I think think the profit motive gets stigmatized within certain Christian circles (and I’ve come across this viewpoint in both the conservative and progressive camps). Jesus urged His disciples to serve others, and in a free-market economy the one who serves best and most efficiently usually reaps the highest reward. Of course, the issue is really not the profit itself but rather how that profit is utilized.

    Money shouldn’t be feared – coupled with the correct attitude of heart, money can be one of the most effective “worldly” tools we have at our disposal for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom. When we as Christians stigmatize profit as being some sort of a negative trapping of a secular world, we are, in essence, relinquishing our share in the productivity of a free market society.

    Of course, it goes without saying that money *is* a root of all sorts of evil, and Christians must guard their hearts and minds from falling into the snare of trying to serve two masters.

  • Tim Weinhold

    Anne, generally I agree with your thesis that profit-making business activity is capable of being a powerful force for good, for blessing. However, you also refer to ‘profit-seeking’ activity. This starts to tread on dangerous ground. There is both good and bad profit. (This is discussed especially well by Fred Reichheld in his book, The Ultimate Question.) Good profit comes as a byproduct of creating value for others. Such activity reflects and embodies the Serve dynamic at the heart of the kingdom of God (Tim Keller) — and inevitably produces blessing, the hallmark outcome of God’s kingdom. Unfortunately, there is an opposed Be Served dynamic at the heart of the ‘kingdom of this world’ — a dynamic/kingdom whose invariable outcome is not blessing but blight. When profit becomes the priority, the real objective, rather than simply the byproduct of creating value for others, it turns toxic. Profit as the priority inevitably results in value extraction rather than value creation. And this dynamic — taking value that rightly belongs to others — is what Scripture refers to as plunder. Passages like Proverbs 1:10-19 and Galatians 6:7 make clear that plunder always ends badly. There is an important corollary: seemingly-attractive profits provide no evidence for whether a company is prospering well and sustainably through value creation or, instead, ‘prospering’ temporarily and unsustainably through value extraction. A sufficiently thoughtful treatment of profit needs, therefore, to highlight the good versus bad profit distinction that is so critical to a true biblical understanding of profit.

    • Russ McCullough

      Profit is amoral, it is a measurement. There is good and bad action, both of which can partially measured by profit in a market setting. Christians can use profit to help measure whether their action was successful. There are other non-monetary measures of success as well that should be considered with determining whether human action was successful or not (i.e. the number of people educated at a free seminar on Christian leadership). My take-away from Anne’s comments is to not judge profits as good or bad but to use them for what they are, a signal to the people in action.

  • wayne

    Wayne’s here. lazy to login.

    the love of money is a sin but not money. Every business needs to be sustainable and if we have profits we can do MORE for the kingdom of God. it is about stewardship too.

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