by By Gilles Gravelle
These days, many well-established mission agencies and faith-based non-profits operate on the assumption that the funds they raise will achieve good results. Yet the goals they set and the strategies they use are rife with unspoken assumptions. Mission is driven by practices built on time-honored tradition. Organizational legacy keeps them within tried-and-true boundaries and paradigms. Group think hinders their ability to keep learning. As time marches on, the odds are increasingly stacked against them.
Change is no respecter of legacy or tradition. Science keeps discovering, inventors keep inventing, innovators keep disrupting, and creative processes keep getting more creative. And, oh yeah, culture keeps changing. This thought seems trite. Everyone knows change happens, yet many do not look out for it, seek to understand it, adjust to it, or even acknowledge it. When this happens, an organization’s effectiveness declines. Irrelevancy is not far behind. When that happens, people—along with their funding—move to where they think they can achieve greater results. It’s nothing new.
When mainline church mission funding became institutionalized, donors who had historically been more intimately involved in mission endeavors became simply a funding source for official church missions and ministry. Over time, they began to reduce their giving until eventually they shifted the bulk of their giving to the grassroots parachurch movement of the late twentieth century. There, they knew how their funds were being used.
The move caused traditional mission agency disruption and it’s happening again. Today, there are endless opportunities to give globally. Has the current status quo parachurch responded to this shift? Not much. So donors are disrupting things again by moving their money to a surprising new place: rather than giving to middleman organizations, their charitable funds are increasingly going into a donor-advised fund (DAF), where money goes to wait for good ideas (Nayfahk 2013).
A DAF is like a family foundation. Donors have full control of their giving with a charitable tax deduction. A DAF puts them more in control of how their funds are used. In fact, about forty-eight percent of foundation grants ($24 billion in 2013) were given by family foundations (DAFs), and GenX donors are among the biggest users of DAFs (Philanthropic Landscape 2014). Even so, the funds are still largely waiting for good ideas. This is based on the expenditure rate in which more is going into the fund, but only a small amount is going out to causes. This presents a big challenge for mission CEOs. According to a 2013 Missio Nexus survey, it’s a CEO’s biggest challenge. Agencies need to demonstrate that they are worthy of DAF investment, and that is a problem if their organization is still operating in older paradigms.
Who Is Telling Your Story?
Whether you realize it or not, there is a narrative about your organization on the Internet. Powerful search engines make it easy for donors to find that story. It’s usually woven together through multiple websites. The information may come from your communication department on your official website. The narrative is also pieced together from unofficial sites, such as social media outlets or blogs written by staff, friends, and critics.
What story does this piecemeal web search tell about your organization? Is it the story you want them to find, or worse, will your story turn them away? Granted, you can’t control everything people say, nor should you try. There is value in creative freedom that can benefit your organization. Still, unless you know what your narrative is and how to communicate it effectively, you are at the mercy of the uncontrolled freelance crowd. This matters because today donors have certain values in giving. They do web searches to find out if your organization’s values align with theirs.
What do donors value these days? Donors from the empire builder and baby boomer generations generally value truth and integrity. Doing what you said you would do in practices and outcomes goes a long way with these two groups. They trust organizations based on legacy practices. They operate on shared assumptions with the funding recipients. Baby boomers and older cohorts use the Internet to gather more information than millennials do, according to 2010 Pew survey figures. So they are increasingly aware of change in the world. They are also utilizing social media at a surprising level. Therefore, your narrative may be losing their interest at a faster rate than you think.
Gen Xers, the baby boomers’ children, are entrepreneurial and innovative. They made their money fast as opposed to inheriting it. They expect funding recipients to also be fast, innovative, entrepreneurial, and effective. Millennials—born after 1985—are a new breed entirely. They expect short timeframes, rapid loops, lean startups, group creative processes, clear causes, risk taking, and addressing pressing problems with tangible solutions. They don’t mind failure, as long as it is cheap and moves learning forward. Clearly, knowing your donor audience has become more complex. Indeed, mission and social enterprise these days is more complex.
Now, there is a new donor demographic emerging. It describes people from different generations who share one central concern: What is changing because of ministry? The question does not address vague, intangible change. Rather, it has more to do with measurable change in the spiritual and social realms. Even social-sector development professionals are now discussing change stemming from their projects in phenomenological terms, if not spiritual terms. Phenomenon is the intangible thing that can’t be explained through scientific methods, but requires some sort of explanation.
In the faith sector, donors of all ages are less impressed with numbers such as churches planted, people baptized, Bibles translated, films shown, and hands raised. It can all sound mind-numbing to them. Rather, they are asking about quality results: What has your organization done to make people and their communities better off? Indeed, the terms “impact” and “transformation” have become buzzwords. What is behind this shift? I see it as progressive revelation now in the globalized period.
Paul Hiebert (2008) noted three periods in Western mission history. During the nineteenth century, the focus was on outward signs through behavioral change. You just needed to understand behavior norms, such as not using vulgar language, drinking, smoking, or dancing (at least not in the presence of church members). During the twentieth century, mission focused more on believing the right things which required deeper scripture understanding. Knowledge was the goal.
Today, the focus is increasingly on deep-level transformation. This requires fuller scripture assimilation into language and culture. Deep, lasting change that happens in individuals and their communities is what many donors want to know about. They also want to know how positive change will be sustained and even expanded.
Achieving Greater Spiritual Transformation
This requires more than a new vision and mission statement. Organizations need to rethink assumptions, strategies, and structures to better position themselves to deliver transformational change the times require. Then, they must come up with ways to observe and record such change in tangible ways.
However, the evaluation tools used during former times may not help. During the last decade, sociologists and psychologists began to question modern scientific inquiry, such as quantification metrics, standardized questionnaires, multiple choice questionnaires, Likert scales, random controlled tests, and focus groups. Researchers questioned the reliability of these instruments. They pointed out what tainted the results: response bias, bandwagon bias, and violating the normal conventions of conversations.
The good news is that qualitative evaluation is now coming into its own as a useful way to discover, observe, and report on transformational change. However, some scientists have viewed qualitative inquiry as lacking scientific impericism. It is too subjective; it cannot produce the proof that hard science requires.
Nevertheless, as one social sector expert put it, qualitative evaluation should help us understand people’s experiences. It can give us a closer view of real-life situations (Flyvbjerg 2003,168-213). Evaluating change from an outsiders’ perpective has its value, but looking deeper into transformation trends requires participatory evaluation. That means the people being studied are also empowered to help shape the inquiry methods, gather the data, and interpret it. Results can benefit all parties, as it should.
As the saying goes, if you keeping doing the same things, you keep getting the same results. Actually, because the world changes, you get diminishing results. In order for organizations to keep up with change, they need to occasionally disrupt themselves before donors do it for them. Speaking at the 2013 Innovation and Entrepreneurship for a Disruptive World Forum, Vijay Vaitheeswarn explained it this way: “Disruptive means, innovative ideas that disrupt the status quo when the status quo is no longer effective in achieving mission and impact.”
Disruption sounds negative. We usually consider disruptions as something annoying because they interfere with processes. Managerial leaders are usually most annoyed over disruption because their job is to ensure smooth operations. When creative staff promote new ideas, it is usually managers who react quickly with detailed questions. They tend to ask the “prove it now” questions (Martin 2014).
Yet innovative ideas take time to prove. New practices need space to learn and improve. Managers have important work to do, but they should not be leading change, according to change management guru John Kotter (2012, 147). Rather, lasting change can be more successfully implemented if top leadership is championing it, protecting it, modeling it, and resourcing it.
Four Ways to Disrupt Yourselves to Keep Up with Change
The following action items can help any non-profit or church mission agency improve performance. Doing these things requires patience, discipline, and determination simply because they are disrupters of the status quo.
Ensure new learning. Over time, closed groups such as work teams and departments develop group thinking. As a result, learning decreases and work culture becomes entrenched and resistant to change. Faith organizations (e.g., missions and churches) tend to draw on internal staff rather than hire an outside expert to help them think about what needs to change and how.
Nevertheless, it is important that they bring in such corporate outsiders because without external feedback leaders don’t know what they don’t know. A good consultant can skillfully ask the “dumb” questions. Dumb questions are questions leaders assume answers to and never talk about. A good consultant knows how to facilitate discussions that examine basic assumptions which drive the organization. So often, the leaders will discover they don’t assume the same things, and what they do assume often no longer fits with the times. External consultants help with this important discovery process.
Foster group diversity. Crowdsourcing is not as much about numbers as it is about diversity. The more diverse knowledge, experience, and wisdom brought to a problem, the greater the chance solutions will be found. Even on a small scale, diversifying is disruptive when new staff join a team, especially if they are younger and seem a bit brash.
So often, solutions arise when this kind of disruption happens. It can be discomforting to a team that has enjoyed their comfort zone for a long time. Nevertheless, if you want to achieve greater success with the resources you have, then make yourself and your team a bit uncomfortable by mixing in staff members who have different perspectives from time to time.
Maintain a safe climate. How safe do staff members feel when exercising creativity within the organization? Are they afraid to raise an issue, ask a dumb question, or suggest a crazy idea? Do they have space to try new things without fear? Typically, a hierarchical structure prevents creativity from flourishing. Reporting structures may simply make trying new things too daunting. Supervisors may fear losing authority or control.
Some order needs to be maintained to ensure good operations, but if creative and innovative work is not flourishing on the margins and finding ways to move the tested results to the core, the organization will lose its effective edge. Leaders need to ensure that people have the freedom and safety to try new things and even to fail, as long as failure is not overly expensive and it produces valuable learning that moves the mission forward.
Budget for change. Many non-profit organizations have accepted conventional thinking that small overhead attracts more donors. If donors really are impressed with small overhead, then they may be betting on a losing proposition. Large, inefficient overhead is not helpful either, but budgeting for self-disruption is necessary. If done well, the return on investment will be greater organizational effectiveness, more measurable results, and relevancy.
Donors should look for organizations that use the budget to ensure they are smart, informed, always learning, and thus well-situated to achieve good results. That is where donors will find the good ideas for which their DAF funds have been waiting. If an organization hasn’t budgeted for reinvention, it should search for a donor who understands how their funding in this area can make changes for the good sooner.
The rate of change in the globalized age requires nimbleness, flexibility, intentionality, and perseverance. Rethinking strategies, operations, and mission values are not a luxury. Rather, the future of your organization may depend on it.
Flyvbjerg, Bent. 2013. “Case Study.” In Strategies for Qualitative Inquiry, 4th ed. Eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, 168-203. Sage Publications.
Hiebert, Paul G. 2008. Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change. Ada, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Kotter, John. 2012. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
Martin, Roger. 2014. “Two Words that Kill Innovation. Prove It.” Harvard Business Review, December 9.
Nayfahk, Leon. 2013. “Donor-advised Fund: Where Charity Goes to Wait.” The Boston Globe, December 1.
Missio Nexus CEO Survey 2013: Navigating Global Currents. Missio Nexus. Philanthropic Landscape. Executive Summary. June 2014.
Pew Research Center. 2010. “Generations 2010.” Accessed March 1, 2015, from www.pewinternet.org/2010/12/16/generations-2010/.
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Gilles Gravelle is a researcher, writer, and speaker. He works as a non-profit strategy and funding consultant both in the private sector and voluntary with a mission agency. Views expressed in this article are Gilles’ and not necessarily those of the organizations with which he serves.
EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 326-331. Copyright © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.