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Charity Begins at Work

Here's one entrepreneur with divine inspiration.

When you think of a monk, you may not think of someone like The Rev. Bernard McCoy, 36, who began LaserMonks out of The Cistercian Abbey in Sparta, Wisconsin. McCoy and his fellow monks of the Cistercian Order offer up to a 75 percent discount on imaging supplies for printers, copiers and fax machines-when they aren't spending five to seven hours per day in Gregorian chant and prayer. After expenses are paid for the business and the monastery, revenue has gone to everything from getting a defibrillator for the local fire department to providing free computer training for orphans in Vietnam. In 2002, its first year in business, LaserMonks only sold $2,000 worth of supplies. This year, thanks to a friend handling marketing on the cheap and media attention in the likes of USA TODAY and MSNBC, estimates are at about $500,000.

What are some of the challenges you face when mixing religion with business?

The Rev. Bernard McCoy: The biggest thing is most people don't expect monks to be in business. America hasn't been as influenced by the monastic life as Europe. And there's always the question, "How do you deal with the IRS?" We've chosen to be a for-profit corporation, which the monastery owns. Through charitable, legal means, we channel money to the abbey, which is how we don't jeopardize our tax-exempt status. Our competition would like to say we have an advantage, that we don't pay taxes. That's not true. We pay business taxes just like everybody else. I grant you, we probably don't have the same overhead.

Are there any disadvantages to having a business aligned with a religion?

McCoy: It's when people are blatant about selling God that it becomes unseemly. We're not selling God; we're selling black dust and ink so we can give our profits away to good causes. But you do have to walk a fine line in your marketing and not be offensive to God, yourself or other groups that have various relations to divine things. Some groups are very sensitive to using the name of God attached to anything.

Does being a monk help you be an entrepreneur?

McCoy: Yes. The structure and carefully lived life has helped me to focus. I don't have the distractions I used to-, physically and externally. Another factor is that I'm not working for myself. I don't make more money because I work harder on a particular day- there are people who depend on us. So we can't slack off any more than any other entrepreneur. It makes a big difference when you're working on a project you believe in and love, and when you want to help people with your business.


Geoff Williams is a writer in Loveland, Ohio. He can be contacted at gwilliams1@cinci.rr.com.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the December 2003 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Charity Begins at Work.

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