One Brick at a Time
What does David Green and Hobby Lobby have to do with the growth of your ministry?
While some people might first think of the Green family as a funding source, there’s an opportunity for deeper instruction from their story. Their story has been well documented in Giving it All Away and Getting it all Back Again: The Way of Living Generously (Zondervan, 2017), but some of it bears repeating.
The Simplicity of a Vision
In 1970, with a young family of three children, David and his wife Barbara took out a $600 loan to buy a frame chopper and wood moldings. Humble beginnings. Yet today, Hobby Lobby is approaching $7 billion in sales with 1,000 stores and 50,000 employees.
What accounted for the unprecedented growth?
What accounted for the unprecedented growth? After all, not many people can take a business from a $600 startup to a multi-billion enterprise. Some might hear this story of incredible growth and ascribe the results to a leader of tremendous vision.
But in truth, the makings of a $7-billion-dollar enterprise began very simply. Hobby Lobby didn’t begin as a retail business. It began as a frame manufacturing business—albeit small. The next step was a 600-square-foot retail store which they operated for three years before moving into a 1,200-square-foot house. They didn’t open their second store until five years into the venture. Their plan was pretty simple: add stores and make each store better little by little.
There wasn’t the grandiose vision of a retail empire. Instead, David will tell you that he and Barbara had three basic goals:
1) To have a great marriage.
2) To raise children who serve God.
3) To be successful in business.
This clear vision and set of goals carried them into a future that far surpassed their wildest dreams. I find it notable, however, how David’s first goals focused on family.
David focused on making his marriage not just one that stayed together, but a beautiful marriage. He sought to create a loving home environment that made Christianity attractive to his children. He wanted his children to grow up loving the Lord because they saw the difference faith made in his own life and in his own marriage – just as he had seen in his parents’ lives. He could easily do well in business, but he knew that the true reward lay in loving his family. It is so easy to get organizational success ahead of family success.
Lessons about Vision from the Journey
When we hear the Hobby Lobby story, it might be easy to get caught up where they are now—1,000 stores, 50,000 employees and billions of dollars in sales. But when I ask David how he built Hobby Lobby, he says simply: "one brick at a time."
But when I ask David how he built Hobby Lobby, he says simply: "one brick at a time."
It’s noteworthy as well that Hobby Lobby carries more than 100,000 items in any given year. Those items are carried in 1,000 stores. But again David drives home a key point: “I don’t run 1,000 stores; I run one store 1,000 times."
That’s how vision works. You start somewhere with a plan to end up somewhere else. The key is to 1) have a plan, and 2) work your plan. Put differently, it’s about execution of the plan. How well do you do in a disciplined manner to execute on your plan—to build one brick at a time?
How many people have a dream for “someday” but fail to take the steps needed to get there?
How does all of this relate to the nonprofit world and even nonprofit fundraising?
There’s little doubt that vision is a critical necessity. We need to set out a vision that others are willing to join in and follow. But David’s story first starts with the notion that how we lead ourselves will be how we lead others. Can we take care of ourselves? Can we lead our families?
Perhaps one key message underlying all of this: let’s not despise the day of small beginnings. Instead, let’s take the vision that God has given us—however big or small—and execute on that. Let’s do all that is in our power to do all that we can to act upon what God has placed within our hands. Faithful stewardship is one of the best ways to live out the vision God has given us.
In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, (HarperCollins Leadership, Updated edition, 2007) John Maxwell addresses a concept he calls the “leadership lid.” An organization can only go as far as the leader’s ability to advance it. Growth depends not as much on the quality of the idea as on the capability and capacity of the leader. Often organizations outgrow the capacity of the leader—particularly when the growth is dramatic.
David’s mantra of “growing one brick at a time” allowed him to grow along with his organization. As the organization grew, so did he. As he grew, so did his goals—his vision. He’s added two goals to his original three: 1) He desires to use his resources to tell as many people about Christ as possible, and 2) He hopes to see his grandchildren and great-grandchildren serving God—a generational vision.
Living Out and Refreshing the Vision
For the past 21 years, I’ve had the unique privilege of working with all kinds of leaders—business leaders from families like the Green family as well as nonprofit leaders from organizations of all shapes and sizes. I see commonality from those leaders—whether they serve in the for-profit or nonprofit world. The overriding theme is that these leaders can communicate the vision of their organization with simplicity. They know what the vision is and they know how to act upon it. And equally critical, they have passion for the vision.
The passion of the leader drives the vision within and outside the organization. They still get jazzed by the work. They still enjoy the heart of the matter.
The key to success lies in a future-focused game plan.
The key to success lies in a future-focused game plan. You must have a goal, but you must also start somewhere. Think about where you want to end up, and take action steps to get there. We often say at The Signatry, “If you plan your work and work your plan, your plan will work.” Or as Proverbs 21:5 puts it, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit.” Your diligence will ultimately connect you with the hearts of your donors.
Donors do not give necessarily to the biggest, brightest, most compelling vision. Rather, they give to the people that they trust. They are looking for organizations with proven track records of success. Jesus looks for the same. He says, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10).
His message applies to nonprofits. If you have a track record of faithfulness, you become trustworthy to donors. Your vision carries you forward, and as you follow that vision, your donors will see results, which increases their trust. They will see you as worth the investment.
Connecting with donors does not require having the best idea or the wildest dream, but it does require being faithful with what God has given you. Indeed, in my own conversations with people like David Green, I hear these donors say about nonprofit leaders, “I know that person will get the job done. They will do what they say.”
All vision ultimately emanates from God. He has already given us his grand vision to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20a). The Great Commission surmounts and encompasses all other visions. They all fall under this grand vision. We simply take God’s ideas and articulate them to others.
Many ministries go astray when they try to grow too quickly and reach for a vision larger than what they can handle. Unable to sustain the growth, they fail. In doing so, they lose the trust of donors.
A vision cannot outsize an organization. Just be the best you can with what God’s already put in front of you. For example, if your agency sends out missionaries, don’t try to enter every country instantly. Simply do well where you already minister, and let your vision slowly expand as you grow. Faithfully execute the vision God has given you. As you do so, you will gain your donors’ trust and earn their support.
Remember, connecting your vision to the hearts of donors is not about having the best and brightest idea. Faithfully follow the vision in front of you, and in doing so, you will earn donors’ trust. If you plan your work and work your plan, your plan will work.
Bill High is the Executive Chairman & Founder of The Signatry: A Global Christian Foundation. His mission is to empower families in building multi–generational legacies of generosity. Bill works with families, individual givers and financial advisors, with expertise in guiding business owners looking to sell or transition their business to the next generation.