An economic system based on relationships

The Economy of Communion’s beginnings, principles and impact in America

By Thomas Masters and Amy Uelmen

from Living City, November 2011

The Focolare’s project for an Economy of Communion in Freedom (EoC) embodies the conviction that human persons, as founder Chiara Lubich describes them, “find fulfillment precisely in loving, in giving.” The EoC illustrates the potential of a system of economic development based upon relationships of reciprocal giving and receiving.

How the EoC began

As the Focolare spread throughout the world, people strived to meet the material needs of everyone in the community. Such needs, however, often outstripped resources. During a visit to Brazil in 1991, Chiara was moved by the circumstances of the people, including Focolare members, living in the shantytowns that surround Sao Paulo. Reflecting with the community on how to respond to these needs, the idea of launching a new economic model emerged. EoC businesses would generate jobs and commit to a three-part division of their profits: direct aid to people in need, educational projects to help foster a “culture of giving” and the continued growth and development of the business.

There are now 797 such businesses, most of them small and medium-sized; a few have more than 100 employees.

Its basic principles

EoC businesses operate upon the fundamental notion that is at its heart: economic activity is the expression of what fulfills every person — relationship. Although small in comparison to the economic systems that dominate the news, their witness to the power of “loving … giving” in the business world has not gone unnoticed. In his 2009 social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict XVI noted one recent sign of economic hope — the development of a “broad intermediate area” of “traditional companies that nonetheless subscribe to social aid agreements in support of underdeveloped countries ... and the diversified world of the so-called ‘civil economy’ and the ‘economy of communion.’” Many journalists, academics, and business leaders have commented on how the pope’s description of businesses that consider profit as “a means for achieving human and social ends” matches the Focolare’s global EoC network.

Its effects worldwide

Those helped by EoC businesses are active participants in the project, part of the same community, committed to living the culture of giving. This culture assumes that everyone, of any economic status, has something to give — understanding, attention, forgiveness, a smile, time, talents, ideas and help. In fact, those in need participated in founding the initial EOC businesses. Hundreds pooled their resources, often selling chickens or other livestock to purchase “shares” to raise initial capital. Sharing one’s needs, with dignity and sincerity, is an essential contribution to the life of communion.

Direct aid from the EoC has been used primarily to provide temporary assistance for the unemployed, for students who cannot afford schooling and for those facing unexpected illness or personal calamity. The EoC has also established credit and microcredit programs. Many of those who receive help relinquish it as soon as they establish minimal economic independence. A young man from Nigeria who used EoC aid to finish high school and find a better job wrote, “Now it is time for me to help someone else. I ask God that he may always give me a heart as big as his, in order to see others’ needs.”

The EoC in North America

In North America, EoC businesses include, among others, an environmental engineering firm, a violin atelier, a language school, a travel agency, a tutoring service, a law office, an organic farm and various consulting businesses. These EoC firms sustain their vision through contact with local Focolare communities and their “business to business” network with other EoC firms throughout the continent and the world. Quarterly conference calls, an annual national convention and occasional international meetings provide opportunities to sustain their commitment to the project and refine their ideas.

Clare Marie DuMontier’s Visitation Law Office in Appleton, Wisconsin, provides guardianship services for the elderly. An interview in Our Sunday Visitor describes a simple yet essential benefit of her connection with the EoC: “What I love about working in an Economy of Communion business,” DuMontier notes, “is that my entire life in Christ is united — my work, as well as my family life and community life.”

She had considered leaving the profession because of the conflict that suffused the legal environments in which she had worked. A spirituality of unity has given her the tools “to stay calm and persevere, and to love in the most stressful circumstances.”

The businesses commit themselves to infusing all their relationships — with employees, customers, suppliers and their neighbors — with values of love and respect.

But how do EoC businesses function in a competitive environment?

John Mundell is the founder and CEO of Mundell & Associates, an environmental reclamation consulting firm in Indianapolis.

“It’s a twist on the American way, but in an EoC business, we try to see competitors not as the ones to beat, but as people with whom we can build relationships. Since we started, we have tried to follow the principle of never speaking ill of a competitor. It’s tempting when someone calls seeking negative information about them, but we refrain. We compete only by the quality of our product and our service.

“When asked to testify in court, it is tempting to go on about a competitor’s mistakes. But I try to make it a point to also say what they did right. Once we were involved in a fairly large bid for a sophisticated project in another state. When the attorney for the city stood up to say how our references checked out, he confessed that he had spoken not only with our client referrals, but also with our competitors. ‘I tried to get the dirt on this company, and I have never heard such glowing remarks from competitors. I have no reservations about hiring these people.’”

EoC businesses also consider how to foster reciprocal relationships in their local environments. For example, Mundell decided to relocate their offices so as to encourage economic development in a distressed part of the city.

“We decided to hire local people to fix the roof and do the landscaping. We have developed close relationships with the smaller coffee shops in the neighborhood and have offered our employees gift certificates to be used at local businesses. The local Catholic school was not able to support much curricular enrichment, so we sponsored a workshop for them on protecting wildlife and hired another business that was going through a hard time to develop it. Our employees volunteer at the food pantry in the nearby Disciples of Christ church, and some helped to fix up a run-down house in our neighborhood. A television crew came by that day, and they featured us on the evening news. Because of that coverage, three years later we obtained a $50,000 contract.”

Some of the more developed EoC businesses have been able to offer internship programs so that undergraduate and graduate students can experience from the inside how these firms operate. Elizabeth Garlow, who had done research on the EoC model in college, interned with Mundell & Associates. The experience helped her, as she puts it, to “see the challenges in a clearer way, especially in understanding relationships with employees. I came away convinced that you can build a sense of family in a workplace. This experience has had a big influence on my career choices and my current work with small business and microfinance.”

Its impact on American culture

Surveying the U.S. experience, EoC businesses are neither the first nor will they be the last experiment with “hybrids” that integrate aspects of non-profit, profit-based, and socially responsible business models. The tendency to link “self-interest” with concern for the common good runs deep in the American mentality. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans “are pleased to explain almost all the actions of their life with the aid of self-interest well understood; they complacently show how the enlightened love of themselves constantly brings them to aid each other and disposes them willingly to sacrifice a part of their time and their wealth to the good of the state.”

To what extent does the Focolare’s economic experience resemble Tocqueville’s principle of “self-interest well understood”? Is the “culture of giving” an example of it?

Some who study the intersection of religious and corporate social responsibility ask how religion might be “used” to encourage a broader and deeper commitment to the common good. They hope to harness for good the tendency to pursue material interests rather than let such pursuit run wild. But Tocqueville worried that “self-interest well understood” might not be strong enough to ground a culture over time.

Political theorist Brian Danoff explains Tocqueville’s fears: that “utilitarian and economistic arguments for civil commitment may, over time, fail to rein in or ‘master’ the destructive passions of the human soul.”

The Economy of Communion offers more staying power than “self-interest well understood.” It is founded on the belief that human beings, made in the image of God who is Love, find their true “self-interest” in loving, in giving. In Caritas in Veritate Pope Benedict XVI explains that the “more authentically” one lives in the dynamic of interpersonal relationships, the more one’s own “personal identity” matures. Chiara Lubich affirms, “I am myself … when I give myself.”

For those who participate in the Economy of Communion, sharing their profits with those in need is simply a logical expression of their identity as members of the universal human family, and an expression of their connection to this family. Similarly, the protagonist in the work of the Focolare community to improve economic and social structures is not an individual who is being generous or being ingenious in solving problems. Rather it is the presence of Christ in the community, which occurs when individuals build relationships of mutual love and discover all the ways in which they have been created as “gift” for each other.

From Focolare: Living a Spirituality of Unity in the United States (New City Press, 2011). For a fuller explanation of the notion of Christ as the “protagonist in the work of the Focolare community,” see “A New Way of Christian Living” in Essential Writings, pp. 12–15.

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