What is Gleaning? by Aimee Minnich

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We’re so excited to have Aimee Minnich on the podcast this week, and in preparation for her interview, we thought we’d share something she wrote about gleaning. In addition to being on our first podcast episode, Aimee was one of the presenters at our recent event for Faith Driven Investors, and she was gracious enough to share a copy of her talk with us. Below is a transcript of her presentation about the concept of gleaning. If you like this, look for her episode being released tomorrow!

by Aimee Minnich

Brittany Underwood built Akola from nothing — each item of jewelry handmade in Uganda and distributed through their warehouse in the States where most jobs are held by women recently released from prison. It’s an unlikely story for a company whose jewelry is sold for $300+ in Neiman Marcus and has been featured in Vogue and People StyleWatch.  With 70% margins and contracts with other major retailers she’s poised for growth and needs both a line of credit and an equity partner. A top VC firm in her industry was offering favorable terms and promising to help make the company even more profitable. Earlier this year, she sat across the table from them and turned them down. Why? Why would someone do that?

The difference between 70% and 80% profit margins the VC firm wanted would mean eliminating jobs that our young entrepreneur worked hard to create for women coming out of prison. The impact of those jobs for the women and their families was worth more than an easy equity raise and more revenue.

Brittany’s company Akola is modern example of gleaning — when an investor or business owner leaves some monetary gain on the table to provide access for a group that society has largely left behind.

Brittany’s decision may appear counter-intuitive, even to those of us pursuing faith-driven investing. We want to move up and to the right — that’s success, right? More profit, more impact. And often that’s the line that secular impact investing keeps feeding us. A major study by the Global Impact Investing Network suggests there’s no trade-off between profit and impact. 

Does that need to be our definition of success too? Or does our faith compel us to a different standard? In Scripture we see at least 4 uses of capital commended. We are familiar with the first three — charity, tithing and traditional investing for return. To be clear, all of these are worthy of our effort and money. I love investing for market-rate financial return and many of you could do a much better job than me discussing those issues. But I also believe it deserves more attention.

I’ll focus on gleaning since it is one of the most unaddressed and important uses of capital.  

Remember how Ruth gathered at the edges of Boaz’s field? Boaz was following the command from Leviticus to allow for gleaning.

 The Theology of Work Project explains:

“Gleaning is a process in which landowners have an obligation to provide poor and marginalized people access to the means of production (in Leviticus, the land) and to work it themselves. Unlike charity, it does not depend on the generosity of landowners. In this sense, it was much more like a tax than a charitable contribution. Also, unlike charity, it was not given to the poor as a transfer payment. Through gleaning, the poor earned their living the same way as the landowners did, by working the fields with their own labors. It was simply a command that everyone had a right to access the means of provision created by God.”

Our economies may not be as ag-centric anymore, but gleaning nevertheless is instructive for all of us because gleaning has to do with “provision” rather than harvesting crops.

 In fact, there are plenty of you in this room practicing modern-day gleaning within your own businesses. One of you has a business inside a prison, providing jobs and dignity and reducing recidivism. One of you operates a cattle feed lot, slaughterhouse, and distribution business in Ethiopia to provide jobs and access to the global economy for local families.

I’ve observed that it’s sometimes easier to practice gleaning within our own companies than it is to understand how to do it as investors. For over a decade I’ve worked with generous families of wealth helping them steward their philanthropic capital for maximum positive effect. What about these families, for whom the “field” that they’ve been given to work is managing philanthropic capital? How are we to think about the concept of “gleaning”?

I think we many are afraid to consider “investment gleaning” because it seems that accepting less than full market rate return is the purview of the unsophisticated. If I lend money at 8% when everyone else is getting 15%, doesn’t that make me the fool in the room? Others fear that it provides an excuse for lack of excellence from the entrepreneur.

Those things certainly could be causes of poor returns, but that’s not what gleaning entails. True gleaning involves excellence, access, work and sacrifice.

In ancient times, a farmer leaving some of his fields unharvested meant he had to be even more efficient, more effective with the portions he was working. In order to make enough to feed their family and follow the command to leave room for the poor to glean at the edges, God’s people had to be the very best farmers around. Excellence is always a hallmark of gleaning.

The next two items go together. Gleaning means access for the poor and marginalized. Access isn’t the same as a handout. Access to the means of production means wages for work. I would never advocate for eliminating charity, but I do fear that if we aren’t creating pathways to employment through our philanthropic capital then we may be doing more harm than good. If you’ve been to Haiti, you’ve seen this first-hand. There are instances where aid given to the poor and marginalized can create access – scholarships for education or career training are a great example. So is aid in the context of a disaster or mass displacement. But at some point we need to begin asking when “access” looks more like a job than a gift.

Sacrifice is the last hallmark of gleaning. It’s also the scariest. What looks like sacrifice to others often feels like simple obedience to the person making the sacrifice. Maybe its time to rethink our risk/return paradigm. If God is omnipotent, His return horizon is eternal, and we’re just His money-managers, then really the only meaningful risk we encounter is disobedience. When we get to the pearly gates, I don’t think He’s going to ask us whether we got a 15% IRR or beat our benchmarks. I am confident, though, that the ways in which we provide for His children who are poor and marginalized will be remembered.