The Rev. Danielle Jones calls her church's new philanthropy project a "Shark Tank for Churches,'' referring to the popular reality TV show featuring budding entrepreneurs trying to persuade celebrity investors to put their money and talents in their businesses.
But in this version, the entrepreneurs seeking cash are social entrepreneurs — individuals and teams whose business is to make Minnesota a better place. They'll be pitching their ideas to Wayzata Community Church, not billionaires such as Mark Cuban.
They'll be vying for of a slice of a $200,000 church innovation fund in an unusual form of faith philanthropy.
"We are looking for changemakers from around the Twin Cities who might have a brand-new idea for meeting a need in our community, or new organizations that might be ready to scale up," said Jones. "Semifinalists will move through a process with a navigator, they'll go through a boot camp to refine their business plans and prepare to pitch to a panel of judges."
The project, simply called Dough, is borrowed from a similar venture spearheaded several years ago at Colonial Church in Edina, where Jones had worked.
The Colonial Church project funded ventures ranging from Exodus Lending, which helps Minnesotans get out of payday lending debt, to a frozen-food business called Hoyo that sells sambusa pastries and gives work experience to Somali women.
Colonial Church had such success with two rounds of its "Innové " funds that it put $1 million on the table this year for innovators with connections to its church family. It is now selecting finalists.
The model both supports fresh ideas for combating social ills as well as injects energy into the congregation, faith leaders say. Churches often have untapped talent pools, experts in areas such as law, finance and nonprofit management, who welcome a chance to give back.
"This idea will activate members of our congregation in their Monday through Friday areas of expertise," said the Rev. John Ross, senior minister at Wayzata Community Church.
"It's a fabulous idea," added the Rev. Jeff Lindsay, senior pastor at Colonial Church of Edina. "I hope people who read this think, 'Hey, we can do this.' It's amazing what comes through your doors, the relationships built."
"Dough … Helping People and Ideas Rise" is the motto of the Wayzata initiative, which is taking applications through Jan. 5.
"Our focus is fresh ideas from up-and-coming social entrepreneurs who have big, passionate hearts and an expansive vision to tackle problems in new and exciting ways," said Jones.
Semifinalists, to be selected by the end of January, will be paired with skills coaches to help them hone their business model and learn how to communicate it. In May, they will compete in a "pitch week" and about four winners will be determined.
Those winners will receive ongoing support from church mentors as they implement their plans.
Mariam Mohamed, a corporate and nonprofit consultant on race and gender disparities, and Matt Glover, then a graduate student at Bethel University who was interested in helping immigrant women gain employment, were among the winners of the Colonial Church contest in 2015.
The two had been introduced by a church member and had got to talking about creating a food business that would employee Somali women with limited English skills and work experience.
Their idea: start a wholesale frozen-food business, selling traditional Somali pastry called a sambusa, and employ Somali women.
It was simply an idea at the time they pitched it. But the church embraced it with a $43,000 startup loan with below-market rates. They were paired with two navigators, including a finance director from General Mills. They got help finding a commercial kitchen to rent, learned about applying for USDA approval, and got tips on business insurance and human resources.
Today the Hoyo sambusas are in frozen-food sections of 80 locations, including most Twin Cities food cooperatives and grocery stores such as Kowalski's and Hy-Vee. Founders are seeking more outlets. Hoyo employs seven women, provides transportation to and from work, and offers a culturally comfortable place for them to learn the ABCs of work life in America.
"We're an incubator, a training process, so that some of these ladies can go on to work in other companies," said Mohamed. The goal is to grow the business and employ not just Somali women but also others, she said.
It's stories like this that persuaded Colonial Church to offer its third round of innovation funding, called the Blessing Initiative, this year. It sought applications from individuals and groups with some connection to the church, in hopes of keeping the ongoing connection, said Lindsay.
Brian Jones was a minister at Colonial Church, along with wife Danielle Jones, when it launched its previous innovation grants. He helped design and implement the project. He now has a nonprofit, Innové Studios, that helps other churches experiment with this model. Churches in Houston and Atlanta have since signed on.
He's convinced that social entrepreneur funds are an exciting fit for churches but admits it's not for everyone. Small churches with limited budgets and membership may not be a successful fit, he said.
"It takes a certain kind of church, a church with a lot of business professionals and a heart to be out in the community," Brian Jones said. "It's not every church, but it's a lot of churches."
Churches such as Colonial Church and Wayzata Community Church "are ahead of the curve," he said. He's hoping as the idea gains traction, he'll be able to steer more people toward this type of giving.
In the meantime, he now also works for one of the startup ventures funded by Colonial during his time there — the Sheridan Story, now called Every Meal. It provides food for schoolchildren to bring home on weekends and has provided 6 million meals over the past decade.
"That points to the success of the model," he said.
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511