MCC as an incubator for new approaches to relief, development and peace

[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC has grown dramatically over the past century. By many typical measures—geographic scope, size of operating budget and the number of volunteers, staff and partners—MCC is now impressively large. These measures, however, significantly underestimate the reach and impact of MCC over one hundred years, because MCC has also seeded or spun off an astonishing number of independent organizations. Many of these continue to thrive and have developed in interesting and unanticipated ways that nonetheless align broadly with MCC’s mission. I would thus argue that a proper retelling of the MCC story requires the inclusion of the stories of numerous institutions that no longer bear MCC’s name.

A proper retelling of the MCC story requires the inclusion of the stories of numerous institutions that no longer bear MCC’s name.

This argument may seem rather obvious when looking at trends in MCC’s global program. In recent decades, MCC has shifted toward a partnership approach that focuses on building the capacity of local grassroots organizations. In countries such as Bangladesh, for example, at least a dozen MCC job creation projects have spun off into new ventures that are still in operation. Meanwhile, in most contexts where it operates, MCC has gradually shifted from initiating and implementing projects towards accompaniment of a diverse range of local partners, including churches, church-related agencies and community-based organizations.

MCC’s story in Canada and the U.S. includes numerous examples of initiatives that became independent or differentiated themselves from MCC. Ten Thousand Villages is one of the best known examples of an initiative that began within MCC (first as SELFHELP Crafts of the World) that developed its own distinctive identity.

Beyond Villages, a wide range of separately incorporated organizations have emerged out of MCC programs, projects or departments throughout Canada and the U.S. They can be found from coast to coast, from More Than a Roof, a nonprofit addressing housing needs in British Columbia, to the Prairie View Mental Health Center in Kansas, to MTS Travel in Pennsylvania, to the Tire Recycling Atlantic Canada Corporation in New Brunswick. Many more independent organizations that had their beginnings within MCC could be named. Across these distinctive organizations, one can detect a pattern: MCC tests and lays the groundwork for a good idea to take root, and then lets it go so that its impact can grow.

What generated MCC’s nurturing, collaborative and entrepreneurial organizational culture, and what will enable it to continue?

To dig a little deeper into the Canadian context, MCC is widely credited with instigating two social innovations that have come to overshadow MCC program in Canada—the private sponsorship system for refugees and the contemporary restorative justice movement. In both instances, MCC supported the emergence of a cluster of complementary organizations to deliver services that met the needs of particular communities. For refugees, these complementary organizations included the Calgary Centre for Newcomers, the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, the Global Gathering Place in Saskatoon and the Mennonite Coalition for Refugee Support in Kitchener- Waterloo. For victims and offenders, such complementary organizations included Community Justice Initiatives in Kitchener-Waterloo, Initiatives for Just Communities and Mediation Services in Winnipeg and Saskatoon Community Mediation Services. MCC also helped to establish broader networks such the Canadian Refugee Sponsorship Agreement Holders Association and the Church Council on Justice and Corrections in order to share best practices and amplify advocacy messages. Indeed, advocacy has always been a collaborative pursuit for MCC: the ongoing public policy influence of organizations such as KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives or Project Ploughshares, the peace research institute of the Canadian Council of Churches, would not be possible were it not for the crucial support provided by MCC at their formative stages.

I could discuss many additional examples at length, including the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, which is not only an example of a former program that flourished once given its independence, but is one of MCC’s most significant ecumenical partnerships in Canada. One should also note that, while playing a less direct role, MCC figured prominently in the birth stories of several significant binational Anabaptist-Mennonite organizations that have come to focus on specific elements of MCC’s overall mission, including Mennonite Economic Development Associates and Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Stezen Mudenda (the care taker at KMTC, Kulima Mbobumi Training Center, in Zimbabwe) is using mulch, one of the practices of conservation agriculture, to conserve moisture in the soil. (MCC Photo/Matthew Sawatzky)

Questions that this remarkable family tree raise for me are: what generated MCC’s nurturing, collaborative and entrepreneurial organizational culture, and what will enable it to continue? A growing number of incubator programs across Canada and the U.S. support emerging social enterprises and nonprofits, yet MCC has functioned as an incubator in an unstructured and responsive way for much of its history. Indeed, I think “incubator” is an apt one-word description for MCC, pointing us to a crucial and underappreciated dimension of the MCC story. In addition to serving as an incubator of organizations, MCC has been an incubator of partnerships, institutional leaders and, perhaps most importantly, disciples.

Paul Heidebrecht is director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement at Conrad Grebel University College.

Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Mennonite Disaster Service.

Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA).

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