We’ve recently experienced awards season. The riveting war drama 1917 won the Golden Globe for best picture. Billie Eilish dominated the Grammys. Perpetual big hitters Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Hopkins and Kathy Bates were nominated for Oscars.
Too many important kingdom nonprofits aren’t growing.
In the spirit of awards season, if there was an “Exceptionally Obvious Statement of the Year” award, a worthy contender would be: “Too many important kingdom nonprofits aren’t growing.”
This seems to have been the case for some time, hasn’t it?
Yet if there’s one thing that seems different in recent years, it’s that kingdom-focused nonprofits are beginning to finally admit their growth problems.
At a recent nonprofit conference, we showed the traditional S-Curve graphic with three sections: Early Growth, Maturing Growth, and Decline.
We asked the hundred-or-so nonprofit leaders to raise their hands indicating the stage their organization is currently occupying. A solid eighty percent raised their hands for the Decline stage.
A depressing reality, to be sure, but a refreshingly honest admission as well. You can’t fix what you won’t admit is broken.
Now, what to do about it?
Who’s Afraid of Creative Destruction?
What is the role of creative destruction in my cause, mission and organization?
Well, there are a lot of solutions we’d love to talk about. But here’s one question that smart kingdom nonprofit leaders are asking themselves: "What is the role of creative destruction in my cause, mission and organization?"
Perhaps you’re leery of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter’s term “creative destruction.” Maybe it brings to mind a mental image like Michael Douglas as Gordon Gecko in the movie “Wall Street,” grossly ranting about how “greed is good!” Or perhaps, more solemnly, you think about factory workers, family farmers and coal miners seemingly put out of work by big, unfeeling corporations.
But there’s another, more useful way to think about creative destruction. The idea is to recognize that the ground is ever-shifting under our feet, and someone — your organization or another — will be the first to identify and provide the new thing for which your constituents are searching. And the key to being the first to provide that new thing — and therefore the most value to those constituents — is listening and responding to their needs and wants.
It’s also about identifying your core capabilities and being vigilant in sticking to those core capabilities, while at the same time being creative in how you might apply them to new ventures.
And finally, facing creative destruction requires ruthless self-evaluation and the dedication to making adjustments based on the things you learn from constituents, even when that means making changes to things you believe are working. This may be scary, but surely this is a net good, as kingdom innovation solves real problems with increasing effectiveness, scale and efficiency, to God’s glory.
Good Things Can Hold You Back
An oft-unmentioned problem that so often gets in the way of innovation is a blind dedication to The Thing That Got Us Here. This is the strategy that provided so much of the growth that has taken an organization to its current scale. It takes courage — and careful listening (as noted earlier) — to recognize the signs that your audience’s demand for this service or product or opportunity is truly waning and The Thing That Got Us Here has turned into The Thing That’s Holding Us Back. And then it takes the will to follow through.
In 1997, Prison Fellowship launched a unique in-prison program called Innerchange Freedom Initiative (IFI) that emphasized education, work, life skills, values restructuring, and one-on-one mentoring in a pro-social community environment. IFI required that all participants live together, and had up to 10 Prison Fellowship staff leading the program in prison five days a week.
IFI was a revolutionary program that had third-party research supporting its effectiveness, so it was no surprise that it spread quickly across the country.
But IFI’s staffing model made it expensive to implement, and that, paired with an economic downturn, left the organization with a difficult decision to make: slow or scale back program growth, or find a way to re-tool the program to make it both scalable and sustainable for the long-term.
Initially, it was decided to scale back, and the organization shuttered all but three of its program locations. For years, these three existed in somewhat of a vacuum, but continued to deliver outstanding results.
Finally, in 2015, program leaders dug deep into the program design to identify the core of what was driving results. What they found was that a tiered model, with various staffing options, could net similar results — but in both a scalable and sustainable way. In 2016, James J. Ackerman joined as the new CEO, and the leadership decided to re-tool the program with this tiered model. The newly named Prison Fellowship Academy® exploded to 108 prisons in 29 states.
It’s Not (Just) What You Know, but Whom
In fundraising, too, Prison Fellowship is boldly reconsidering The Thing That Got Us Here and bringing new strategies to the marketplace.
For decades, Prison Fellowship has depended upon (to use the parlance of fundraising) a single-gift fundraising program. In particular, the core of their fundraising has been annual donations to their Angel Tree® program. But to see the dependable growth needed to fund the expansion of Academy sites across the country was going to require something more.
Enter Restoration Partners. As part of the effort to grow the resources needed for Academy expansion, Prison Fellowship developed this new digital-first, monthly donor program. It was designed with donors themselves to give the sustaining donor a unique and great experience with the ministry.
Donor inclusion in the design of Restoration Partners was an important part of the process. To consider shifting away from The Thing That Got Us Here requires the confidence that your new strategy can succeed. Case studies of successful, similar strategies are a good start. It's the same with thorough business plans with analytically developed projections.
But neither is enough. To succeed in developing a successful new growth strategy requires a deep understanding of the audience whose participation you need to inspire in new ways. Please don’t let go of The Thing That Got Us Here and rely upon your new growth strategy without having built it around deep, specific audience insights!
For Restoration Partners, the audience involvement in design is paying off. Launched late last year, early performance is exceeding expectations, and Prison Fellowship is preparing to rapidly scale the opportunity for many more donors.
Be Strong and Courageous
Courageous innovation isn’t merely one course of action
Courageous innovation isn’t merely one course of action. If your calling is ministry growth, you might consider the possibility that courageous innovation is required for obedience. Oddly, Christian organizations commonly seem to practice “safest is best” and reject smart innovation on the grounds that “we have to be good stewards of our funds”.
By all means, let’s commit to be good stewards of the funds God provides us. The Matthew 25 “parable of the talents” gives us an image of what such righteous stewardship looks like. It isn’t the “safe” investor who is commended. On the contrary, he is chastised as lazy. Instead, it is the enterprising, proactive servants who are praised as faithful.
Let’s commit to courageous, faithful innovation for the kingdom, within the causes and ministries in which God has placed us.
For Prison Fellowship, the faithful, innovative path from The Thing That Got Us Here to Restoration Partners-fueled funding of national Academy expansion isn’t 100% clear. We’re at base camp peering to a distant summit, with patchy fog obscuring the precise route. And that’s where courage and discipline will come in. When you have the tools, and the knowledge and determination to use them, you can proceed into the fog with confidence.
Kelly Friedlander leads Prison Fellowship's efforts to develop and execute marketing and communications campaigns to increase brand identity and awareness among the ministry’s constituents, as well as measure the ministry's strategic outcomes and key program performance metrics. Allen Thornburgh is Vice President of Strategic Innovation at Masterworks. He loves helping bold Christian nonprofits increase their kingdom impact through new ministry participation opportunities for current and prospective audiences. Learn more at (masterworks.com).