The United Church of Canada Has an R&D Unit

If These Old Establishments Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

Why It Matters

If the established order recognizes the need for research and development, then the rest of the social impact world must take this as a signal.

The United Church of Canada established EDGE, a future-focused entity within the church, in 2011, which they liken to the “research and design” arm of the organization.

It’s tasked with finding solutions to the problem of declining congregations and, in 2015, they decided to focus on how embracing social innovation as a way to help churches grow and stay relevant.

The Church has allocated 10 percent of their budget to support EDGE. Of this, $1 million per year is allocated to funding social innovation projects.

Over the last two years, this has funded 280 initiatives ranging from food trucks to arts programming for children with special needs.

The United Church of Canada's Innovation Hub

Over the past three years, EDGE has organized more than 25 social innovation challenge competitions across Canada from Toronto to Edmonton where groups pitch to compete for seed funding of up to $10,000.

After realizing they were too urban-focused, EDGE developed toolkits so that rural groups could host DIY social innovation jams.

Carla Leon, who has spearheaded this initiative, says that although the church has recently adopted the language of social enterprise more formally, it has always relied on these models for doing good.

“Monasteries used to fundraise by brewing beer. That’s how they served the poor; they made money like a social enterprise. That’s the root of existing religion,” she explains.

The future of doing good for the United Church of Canada

With the success of the Markham Community Hub in St. Andrew’s Church, the United Church of Canada is planning to expand its social enterprise hubs nationally.

They aim to have 300 hubs in the next five years, each reflecting the needs of the community, taking various forms including co-working spaces (a church in Windsor is already in this process), makerspaces or residential communities that integrate working farms, known as agrihoods.

Leon expects that the momentum will pick up, despite a slow start getting buy-in from faith leaders.

“I think it’ll take us four years to set up the first hundred hubs and in the last year, we’ll set up the other two hundred,” she predicts.

Leon says a bulk of the work has been in explaining the concept of social innovation to churches and how it can expand their mission in communities.  

The United Church, long known for its progressive values, recognizes and celebrates same-sex marriage, supports access to safe abortions, and works in areas of social justice including anti-racism, climate change, and Indigenous reconciliation.

Peter Miller, an entrepreneur and business coach, came out of retirement to volunteer to help bring innovation to the United Church.

He’s been running innovation challenges in various cities and created a network of 500 mentors across Canada to support with EDGE’s landmark pitch competition: The Social Innovation Challenge. “We’re at the point where we’re at liftoff,” he says.

And EDGE isn’t limiting itself to working with United churches.

They’ve consulted with several other denominations and religious groups about getting involved in social enterprise, including a Mennonite church in Kitchener and a mosque near Pickering.

Miller says most places of worship use about 20 to 30 percent of their space on a regular basis and are looking for ways to make more use of it during the week, even if the gain isn’t necessarily financial.

“The benefit for the spiritual institution is that they have the appetite to learn, engage, and give back to the community,” he says.

But even when faith leaders are willing, sometimes it’s a tougher sell to their congregations.

Selby says when starting the hub out of St. Andrew’s Church, congregation members were hesitant to embrace something they had no idea about.

“The first time we had a gathering where we set up the [social enterprise] booths and invited church members to meet them, our congregation left really confused,” she says, admitting that she didn’t know what to expect either. “If we started from scratch right now I’d have more answers and clarity into what I was inviting people into.”

Leon however, says one of the biggest challenges to scaling EDGE’s work in social innovation has been the reluctance of entrepreneurs to work with the church. “Churches are one-third of the social sector and yet in most nonprofit conversations, the church is not included,” she says.

Leon points out that most entrepreneurs are looking for resources like physical space and volunteers that the church can easily provide.

Innovators are also welcome to leverage the church’s charitable status, insurance, and board of directors until they establish their own.

“The only reason why social entrepreneurs don’t work with churches already is because of preconceived notions of what church is and all these are reasons to reconsider that,” Leon says.

She wants to see more innovators approaching the United Church, who she says is ready to provide support. As the Christian adage goes: ask and you shall receive.