An Innovative Culture
In 2016, after 29 years in the media and entertainment industry, I took up the leadership of Prison Fellowship®, the prison ministry founded by Charles Colson, who served as special counsel to President Nixon before becoming a Christian and serving time in federal prison for a Watergate-related crime.
Four years after the passing of our influential founder, our board of directors was looking for a clear forward direction to ensure that our most effective period of ministry was yet to come. With support from our board, the ministry’s leadership team and I set about developing a 10-year strategic vision with a rolling three-year tactical plan and specific annual goals tied to the budget.
Good planning and the support of a top-flight team are essential to Prison Fellowship’s forward-looking success. A clearly articulated vision gives our staff and volunteers a sense of continuity and shared purpose. The three-year tactical plan gives us a picture of where we are going next, and the annual goals give us objective indicators of our progress. After coming on board, I broadened Prison Fellowship’s senior leadership team, so that more voices, and greater diversity, are influencing our decision-making. Further, cross-departmental teams collaborate on core initiatives. This helps us avoid silos and allows us to explore innovative solutions to perennial challenges.
All this unfolds within a context of service to one another and to our Lord. At Prison Fellowship, we strive to be responsive to God’s Spirit. It’s not unusual for a meeting about an important decision to be interrupted by a call for prayer. Anticipating that God will lead us, we construct our plans with built-in flexibility, freeing us to change course depending on where God is working.
For example, this year, we planned to expand the Prison Fellowship Academy®, one of our core programs, to several new states. Unexpectedly, we received an offer of significant funding to bring the Academy to a state that wasn’t in our immediate plan. The Lord opened the door with that state’s department of corrections as he provided the necessary funding. The ministry’s vision and the strategy remained the same, but God was calling us to alter our plan midstream, and I’m grateful that we had the agility to do so.
Over the past couple years, we have opened the door to bigger, bolder ideas and increased our tolerance for calculated risks.
Our growing agility also extends to how we engage with the people who give, pray, volunteer and otherwise support our mission. We have recently launched a new customer relationship management system as well as a new marketing automation system. As we move forward, these tools will enable us to better understand and serve our constituents. We can see how people interact with us and what interests them, so we can deliver highly tailored content they are most likely to appreciate. It’s another way of meeting people where they are.
The effective use of digital media has also allowed us to create, test and adjust new content online—and then test it again. Because we measure results in real time, we can avoid spending resources where they won’t realize benefits for the ministry. Not all content we create will perform well, but even these “failures” give us more data, so that we can be more effective the next day in providing the best experience possible to those interested in our mission.
This innovative stance also permeates our direct marketing efforts. In the past, we followed a strategy of more tightly controlled and tested variables. This path was safe, but it also restricted our growth. Over the past couple years, we have opened the door to bigger, bolder ideas and increased our tolerance for calculated risks. This helps us learn faster, be more responsive to opportunities, and communicate more effectively with new audiences.
I always want to keep Prison Fellowship focused on sustaining a positive, thriving culture. Getting the balance right between focused stability and attentive agility is key to this. Our vision and long-term strategy are anchors that keep us from drifting off-course. They engender trust in our board and our donors that our activities will be in line with our calling. But our emphasis on flexibility builds a culture of keeping our eyes on God and placing trust in our staff. Consequently, the members of our team feel the freedom to use their passion for the mission to learn and innovate, maximizing our effectiveness and resilience as we move forward in an ever-changing world.
Since 2016, James J. Ackerman has served as the president and chief executive officer of Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian nonprofit serving prisoners, former prisoners, and their families, and a leading advocate for restorative criminal justice reform.