When Rod Brenneman left his job as CEO at Butterball, he’d been in senior leadership roles with food companies for 20 years. He was good at business and had an offer the next day. But he sought the wise counsel of peers who advised him to wait.
So he waited. He had, for a long time, viewed his vocation as his mission. And he and his wife, Shelley, had always been committed to giving. They gave consistently to their church and volunteered in ministry. But in this period, he was learning something new, a new way of giving that was much more fun than writing checks.
He didn’t go looking for orphans. His passion was not a particular cause. His passion was using his knowledge and skills to glorify God. But, through business connections and a God-ordained meeting in an airport security line, Rod met Gary Ringger – founder of Lifesong for Orphans and someone equally passionate about business – he found a new way to put his business experience to work.
Lifesong’s approach attracted Rod for several reasons: He was touched by their focus on orphans and vulnerable children, as well as providing education, vocational training, and funding support for adoptions. He was also impressed with the organization’s “100 percent pledge,” promising every dollar of donations fund the ministry, because operational costs are covered through other means – namely charitable businesses.
Soon, the two were “scratching out plans” to use businesses as “giving engines” for God’s work. Rod says he finally discovered something: “What I’ve learned professionally can be a tool to give back, and keep giving.”
What is a giving engine?
For Rod, a giving engine is simply a business that directs a portion of its profits to support ministry, helping to make the ministry sustainable. Instead of giving a check that gets spent to cover the costs of doing ministry, this financial support represents an investment in economic, social, and spiritual transformation. Giving from a business provides ongoing, sustainable support. And, Rod points out, these are real businesses, not hobbies. He expects them to succeed, grow, prosper, produce market-rate returns and gradually take over more of the costs of ministry.
A giving engine is simply a business that is used to support ministry.
Rod has become acutely aware that everything we have belongs to God, and when we make investments, we do so as stewards of resources that really belong to him. This was a critical learning for him. His understanding and commitment to stewardship now infuses these giving engines with meaning and purpose. It’s not hard for a business guy to find joy in this kind of giving and to feel right in the middle of God’s plan.
Today, Rod’s involvement with Lifesong demonstrates the breadth of his new philosophy of stewardship. He guides development of businesses like Lifesong Farms in Ukraine and Zambia and helps with buying small businesses and creating startups in the U.S. too. But, like any good business, each of these has a specific purpose. If you’re curious, here’s how it works for them:
- Impact businesses: Lifesong’s ministry is wide and deep, supporting adoption-minded churches and individuals across the U.S. and vulnerable children in 14 countries. But they make a pledge that 100 percent of public gifts go directly to caring for orphans and vulnerable children. This is where the impact businesses that support Lifesong come in. Lifesong Impact owns five small businesses that operate in the U.S. A couple of them have been startups (though Rod says these are tough).
Others have been bought from Christian business owners who no longer want to run their businesses but want to see them continue on for kingdom purposes. In some of these cases, these small business owners keep a small percentage of the business in order to send their kids to college, fund their retirement, or do their own giving. The businesses always have some component of discipleship.
- Sustainable businesses: These are businesses like Lifesong’s Berry Farms in the Ukraine and Zambia. They are international-focused and connected to a particular orphanage or school project Lifesong supports. These businesses fund operations costs with a long-term goal of funding the whole ministry. But they also provide business training for orphans who will age out of the system with job skills, leadership skills, and discipleship training.
Not only that, these businesses work toward breaking the orphan cycle by providing jobs in the community, because many “orphaned” kids are really just children of parents who can’t afford to care for them.
This is all made possible through a Supporting Organization at NCF. Here’s how it works:
5 reasons to love giving engines
The reasons these businesses are so great becomes apparent pretty quickly. Here are a few reasons to love them:
- They support ministries in a way that is ongoing: First and foremost, giving through a business can be sustainable. Rather than giving one-time gifts to cover ministry costs that would need to be covered again the next month, Rod now invests in businesses with ongoing profits that can cover ministry costs again and again.
- They can be used to support just about any ministry or cause: The businesses Rod is helping to create support orphans. But this model could work for any number of causes or charities. And there are organizations specifically focused on helping business-minded givers and investors achieve this. Rod recommends connecting with an organization like Lifesong that worked at doing ministry this way and has some years invested in learning from mistakes. He also recommends researching organizations like Sovereign’s Capital or Impact Foundation, who help people realize dreams like these or invest in them.
- They’re flexible: Through trial, and some degree of error too, Rod says he and Lifesong have established these types of businesses they want to run for ministry impact. But their ways aren’t the only ways. NCF has been helpful to connect Lifesong with the right partners to help them accomplish what they hoped. But there are multiple ways to use your own business or invest in other businesses that can become engines that fuel the ministries you’re passionate about.
- They can bring joy to people with business skills: What you know about businesses is not separate from your spiritual life. A talent for starting or leading a business is God given, maybe even your calling. And just as a Bible teacher finds joy in glorifying God through her teaching gifts, a businessman can find joy in operating businesses that fund ministries that honor God.
- They can become teaching tools: Lifesong Farms has become an incredible resource that gives beyond the financial. When orphans are old enough, they are allowed to come to work on the farms and learn job skills. For a time, Lifesong farms was really struggling to grow strawberries. The leader of the ministry flew a group of orphans to the Netherlands, where they learned all about hydroponics. Their strawberries are all grown hydroponically now, and, with the addition of hydroponic raspberries and blueberries grown outdoors, the ministry is approaching 50 percent funded by these sustainable means. Meanwhile, some of the orphans have traveled to Lifesong Farms Zambia and are teaching the kids there how to run a farm business too.
Imagine what could happen to the cause of vulnerable children and orphans if every ministry had this kind of support. Then imagine if this business model was applied to every Christian ministry. Could God be calling you to wait on him to lead you into such a calling too?
Photo: Rod with Sergei, Manager of Lifesong Farms 1, Ukraine. Sergei became an orphan at the age of 7 but was introduced to the gospel and received training at a trade school through Lifesong.