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The Promise of Social Enterprise: A Theological Exploration of Faithful Economic Practice

Mark Sampson
Published by Cascade Books in 2022

One of the leading models for the integration of faith and business is social enterprise and Mark Sampson is among one of its more notable practitioners. Social enterprise, however, is subject to the criticism that it represents an unstable relationship between capitalistic activity and eleemosynary intentions. Modern capitalism has created great efficiency in the economies that practice it and great wealth overall. At the same time, some hold it responsible for many of the social ills of our time including increasing economic inequality and the continued degradation of the global climate. Critics of social enterprise can view it as pursuing goals of advancing the cause of the vulnerable in numerous contexts, and simultaneously contributing to vulnerability by engaging in economic activity in the capitalist marketplace.

In this book, Sampson seeks to re-imagine the theoretical underpinnings of social enterprise to counter this critique. In a creative turn, Sampson seeks to redefine social enterprise, not as a form of entity for conducting economic activity, but as an organization engaged in gift exchange. To make this turn without denying the reality of how social enterprises tend to function, and without abandoning the efficiency and dynamism of engaging the market, Sampson borrows the definition of gift exchange from non-Western and pre-modern societies. Adopting this characterization of gift exchange allows Sampson to conceptualize a “gift” that includes obligations and benefits for both the giver and the recipient and to apply it to social enterprises, which typically involve an ongoing relationship between the firms and their clients. Using recent sources, Sampson grounds his concept of gift exchange theologically and biblically as the basis for faithful social enterprise.

Sampson lays out his argument in five chapters. In the first, he identifies three alternative approaches to the relationship between theology and economics: independence, translation, and integration. Sampson bases his argument on a form of the integration approach in which he conceptualizes social enterprise as an attempt at “faithful economic activity” (25). He models this approach on some of Luke Bretherton’s work approaching the integration of faith and politics.1

In the second chapter, Sampson expands on the definition of social enterprise and, simultaneously, addresses some of the criticism that social enterprises contribute to the very ills they are formed to solve. Historically, social enterprise has been a challenge to define, and Sampson categorizes potential definitions into three classes. The first class is those definitions of social enterprise that are least reliant on the “social” element of the term. Social enterprises in this first class are simply enterprises that have social goals in addition to profitability. Companies qualifying for this class may need only to practice some level of corporate social responsibility. The second class of definitions of social enter- prises would be those definitions that are closest to purely charitable organizations, except that they utilize some level of trading activity, such as pricing their products or services rather than bestowing them on clients for free. This class of definitions of social enterprise captures charities that utilize pricing mechanisms either to efficiently allocate their resources or to encourage responsible behavior by their clients. Sampson’s preferred understanding of social enterprise is his third class of definitions which conceptualizes social enterprise as neither a socially motivated business nor a charity utilizing traditional economic tools but rather as a challenge to both. He prefers definitions that characterize social enterprise as something unique from either business or charity. Short on examples of his previous two classes of definitions, Sampson offers Grameen Bank as an example of his third class. Grameen Bank is majority owned by its borrowers and, while it seeks to produce a sustainable level of profits, its loans can be made with little or no collateral. It relies on the relationship among the borrowers and their mutual commitment to limit defaults. Grameen Bank is therefore neither a charitable institution nor a business that operates under typical, impersonal business principles. Critically for the argument to follow, Sampson argues this class of definitions of social enterprise is uniquely suited to biblical and theological models of human engagement.

In chapter three Sampson launches into the problem of social enterprise. He explains the connection between mainstream economic activity and the harm it produces in society. Drawing on Philip Roscoe’s work,2 Sampson argues that market-based relationships both presuppose and reinforce an individualistic and objectifying approach that necessarily undermines community. Any understanding of social enterprise then that includes a reliance on market-based relationships will necessarily interpret social enterprise as a contributor to various social ills caused by modern economic activity. This chapter sets up the problem that Sampson seeks to solve through his new theoretical basis for social enterprise.

The pre-modern or non-Western concept of gift exchange as a substitute for mainstream economic activity for social enterprises is introduced in chapter four. Wisely, Sampson addresses both the strengths and weaknesses of this model for his new theory of social enterprise. The model of gift exchange contextualizes transactions in an ongoing relationship wherein both parties are treated with dignity and fairness. This contextualization makes it readily applicable to social enterprise as an alternative to mainstream economics to provide its underpinning theory. It does not, however, match the concept of “gift” as understood by Joel Waldfogel,3 and most modern Americans, which requires a lack of reciprocity. Sampson supports his argument that a mutually obligatory gift exchange should fit our understanding of gift by attacking a more extreme version of “gift” as a unilateral transfer. In what bears an unfortunate resemblance to a straw man, Sampson takes aim at Jacques Derrida’s notion of a “pure gift” claiming that the concept of a gift free from any reciprocity is impossible.

In chapter five Sampson relates the concept of gift exchange to recent theological texts to support his argument that his new theory of social enterprise reflects a biblically and theologically faithful approach. For this support he relies on the 2009 papal encyclical of Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate,4 and on John Barclay’s 2015 book, Paul and the Gift.5 Sampson notes that Pope Benedict’s encyclical calls for an integration of the concept of gift giving into the practice of economics and cites “organizations such as social enterprises as being a direct implication of the social teaching of the church” (107). Sampson cites Barclay’s text to demonstrate how Paul disrupted the concept of gift exchange in the Greco-Roman world by introducing the concept of grace into the existing patronage system. This revised concept of gift exchange is what Sampson sees as a potential biblical model for his new theory of social enterprise.

Overall, the book is well researched and well documented. (It is, after all, the culmination of Sampson’s doctoral dissertation at King’s College, London.) Scholars working in this field will find that the book is grounded in the relevant literature and provides a handy compilation of research in the area. It represents a clear statement of the argument but without embellishment or in-depth analysis. To test its future in the scholarship of social enterprise will require a fleshing out of the argument and an exploration of potential counterexamples and alternative theses, either by Sampson or others. While a relatively brief monograph, the book can come off as dense and may prove more popular with academics in the field than with practitioners. Although social entrepreneurs may not read the book in large numbers, they would be well served to do so. The text highlights how social entrepreneurs have the capacity to harm as well as help. Engaging an understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of their field may enable social entrepreneurs to avoid undermining the very social goals they seek to accomplish.


  1. Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
  2. Philip Roscoe, A Richer Life: How Economics Can Change the Way We Think and Feel (London, UK: Penguin, 2015).
  3. Joel Waldfogel, Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
  4. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, encyclical letter, Vatican website, June 9, 2009, enc_20090629_caritas-in-veritate.html.
  5. John M. G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015).

Larry G. Locke

University of Mary Hardin-Baylor
Larry Locke is a Professor and Associate Dean of the McLane College of Business at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and a Research Fellow of LCC International University.