Do you sense it? Something big is going on. The world is changing. Technology has transformed our lives. It has altered the way we expect to engage with each other, with the companies from which we buy, and with the donors who support our ministry. And it’s changing at a pace we’ve never seen before.
On the backdrop of all this change, many ministries are not growing like they used to.
Needs are growing faster than are ministries.
Over the past several years, many ministries have struggled to grow. An August 2018 Blackbaud Index on giving for faith-based nonprofits indicated that the average faith-based nonprofit saw a decline in giving by 0.6 percent year-over-year.
At the same time, everywhere I look the needs that ministries exist to address are growing. Billions are struggling to feed themselves and their children. Famine, war and disease rob more men, women and children of their livelihoods and lives. There are more prisoners who need to hear the gospel. More Christians are persecuted for their beliefs politically, socially and physically. Billions of people need the love and message of Jesus Christ extended to them, and that number is growing.
Organizations cannot hope to fully address the issues that God has called us to with the same level of resources. And if we are going to make real progress in this age of acceleration, it’s not enough simply to grow. We must accelerate growth!
If the world is changing, the needs are growing faster than ever, and yet ministries are contracting, what do we do?
Look for and learn from the bright spots.
The first step is to look for bright spots. Just because Christian nonprofits are not growing as a whole, doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. There are ministries that are growing rapidly even as their peers are flat or struggling.
If we are going to make real progress in this age of change, it’s not enough simply to grow. We must accelerate growth.
In times of change, it is tempting to look at the problems—what’s not working. The answer though is to look at the bright spots—those organizations that are growing despite the overwhelming trends.
The critical question then is what can we learn by studying the fastest growing nonprofits in the Christian ministry world today?
Six Growth Principles
We’ve embarked on an in-depth study of the fastest growing nonprofits in the world today. At The Outcomes Conference 2019 we’ll be sharing our findings, but in the meantime, I want to share with you six early growth principles that have emerged:
1. Strong financial leadership is vital
Most leaders of Christian nonprofits understand the importance of spiritual and programmatic excellence. But the thriving, growing ministries we’ve studied also lead with financial excellence. They realize that every healthy ministry needs to grow financially to expand its ministry and kingdom impact.
Strong financial leaders are growth-minded. They find out what works, and then they double-down again and again. They build support at the executive and board levels and maintain a disciplined investment mindset. Just as in a business, if an area is growing, they find ways to add fuel to the fire by shifting the budget around or finding new money. They aren’t satisfied with “good” performance—they ask “how far can this go?”
At Jewish Voice Ministries International, the focus is on seeing how far they can push good results. “If the results are there, we want to keep pushing and growing and seeing how far we can take it,” says Carly Berna, director of marketing at Jewish Voice.
With the board and senior leadership, Berna explains they create “guardrail metrics” that look at the cost of the donor as well as long-term value. “The board wants to understand that the spend is being measured correctly and adjusted as necessary, and our CEO definitely understands the importance of acquisition for future growth.” Berna says that leadership is especially interested in investing more and more in digital, as they continue hitting those “guardrail” metrics.
2. Culture facilitates growth
Ministries that are growing care deeply about organizational culture. They have an active effort to cultivate a culture that encourages and supports growth. They believe that the good plans and strong leadership can either be hindered—or helped—by the right organizational culture.
At Joni and Friends, leadership embraces the importance of a vibrant and engaging culture. So much so that, “we hire first for culture and second for expertise,” says Executive Vice President Laura Pulido. Everything that Joni and Friends does revolves around their culture’s “Four Pillars”— 1) Lead Like Jesus, 2) Integration, 3) Excellence in your area of expertise and 4) Best Christian Workplace.
The strong culture has helped Joni and Friends produce year-over-year significant innovation, growth and sustainability. Pulido adds, “Lead Like Jesus is our operating system for the organization. We hold ourselves and each other accountable to the biblical principles of servant leadership. And, we know if we are successful each year by the Best Christian Workplace survey. It measures our success with culture.”
3. Take risks to grow
Rapidly growing organizations regularly take risks. They realize that in order to grow, they can't just optimize what they're already doing. They need to innovate to try new and different things. No one risk is so big it can sink the ministry, but at any given time, the organization has a number of new efforts going on that might fail.
At Open Doors USA, taking risks is a core part of the DNA. It all started with founder Brother Andrew staging secret missions to smuggle Bibles into hostile regions. Tim Muret, Chief Communications Officer, shares an often-repeated quote from Brother Andrew, “If your vision doesn’t scare you, both your God and your vision are too small.”
When Muret saw the trend in content and online video consumption happening in social media, leadership invested in ramping up the collection and production of high-quality story content for the ministry—video, photo and written. They staffed for it before they anticipated the results. Today, that risk in investing in great content has helped boost the Open Doors brand and awareness across the country, aided in growing and engaging audiences and is integrated with direct response marketing efforts. Open Doors has seen tremendous growth over the past two years. Muret says “the investment in content and storytelling has enabled Open Doors to scale its digital acquisition efforts.”
4. Innovate new channels, products and programs
Growing ministries see innovation as a way to take advantage of new trends, new channels and new ways of doing their work to grow their ministry. In some cases, that innovation results in more efficient and more effective delivery of ministry and communications, effectively growing a ministry’s impact. In other cases, innovation results in new revenue streams and better performance.
At International Justice Mission (IJM), their program model is based on innovation, so it’s fitting that their fundraising is as well. Tina Hudgins, IJM’s national director for constituent mobilization shares that, “Innovation requires taking risks. As much as possible our risk-taking is backed by data, however, at other times it is simply stepping out in faith.”
In 2016, IJM decided that their “Freedom Partner” (monthly donor) program would be the main ask of all new audience facing teams. Since that time, utilizing small careful investments, they’ve grown their Freedom Partner program by 160 percent. “A large part of our focus has been on retention of these donors,” Hudgins says. “This has been accomplished by creating an insider community and getting to know how these individuals want to walk further with IJM. By doing this we’ve not only grown our dependable income base, at the same time we’ve seen these Freedom Partners become committed prayer partners, high-level volunteers and advocates. They are all in for IJM!”
Metropolitan Ministries in Tampa Bay, Florida exists to alleviate suffering, promote dignity and instill self-sufficiency for the homeless and those at risk of becoming homeless. In 2015, “We were working hard on all the principles of fundraising, but we were also looking at diversifying our revenue,” shares Tim Marks, Metropolitan Ministries’ president and CEO. He recalls, “We were on a video conference with the CEO of Tom’s Shoes, famous for their one-for-one model—for every pair of shoes sold, they donate one pair to someone in need. My kitchen manager leaned over to me and said ‘what he’s doing for shoes, I want to do for hunger programs.’” And so the idea for “Inside the Box Café & Catering” was born.
Marks was committed to funding this new program without using donor dollars, so Metropolitan Ministries’ entered a local competition and won seed funding. He also wanted the program to be self-sustaining and cash flow positive—most culinary training programs like this at ministries are not. And, he wanted the enterprise to be fully ministry program—“it’s a job training program and a job creation program,” said Marks.
Thanks to this innovative new program, Metropolitan Ministries will see 16 percent of its revenues this year from their growing social enterprise operation. They have a new store concept called Dough Nation, “bringing together the trendy dessert concept of raw edible cookie dough and doing good for your community,” said Marks. All of this fully cash flow positive, self-sustaining, and is a critical part of the ministry’s programs—they’ve trained 175 people, and expect to train another 100 next year.
When considering an innovation, Tim Marks says Metropolitan Ministries’ looks for the alignment of three things—a passionate leader, core competency and capacity. When they have these things Marks notes “it’s all about taking a calculated risk.”
5. Get the fundamentals of fundraising right
While innovation and risk-taking are vital, we also see that growing ministries work hard to get the fundamentals of a solid fundraising program right. They don’t change for change sake. They understand what works in their fundraising programs and build upon that.
Growing ministries start with a strong brand that positions the ministry as a key solution to a real problem. They have clear, specific, tangible offers. They feature robust major donor, middle donor and general donor programs. They understand their donors and know which parts of the ministry those donors are willing to support. They leverage all channels to communicate and engage—personal, traditional and digital. They have a strong acquisition program for new donors, and an integrated cultivation program to retain and activate donors.
6. Don’t be afraid to learn from others
The writer of Ecclesiastes could have been describing these ministries when he wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecc. 1:9) Growing ministries understand this and aren’t afraid to learn from others. They have a humble, learning attitude.
Too often we’re so busy convincing everyone (and ourselves) that we know the answers that we don’t learn from others. Too often we’re convinced our ministry is unique, and that our donors are unique. And while that is true, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from other ministries and adapt their learnings to our ministry.
Learning from others—this is exactly why at Masterworks we're conducting in-depth research with the fastest growing nonprofits to learn from these bright spots. More to come at The Outcomes Conference 2019, so I hope to see you there!
Dave Raley serves as Executive Vice President of Strategy and Innovation at Masterworks, the nation’s leading marketing agency serving Christian ministries. He is a regular speaker at industry conferences and contributing author for publications. Dave spent more than a decade building and leading the digital team at Masterworks, and pioneered a summit of top digital leaders in the industry. Today, Dave spends his time figuring out the future of marketing and fundraising for Christian ministries. Learn more at masterworks.com.