by Ted Draper
Why would one missionary organization decide to form an alliance with another?
Recently I was traveling on a flight back from Atlanta to Kansas City. As the flight attendant handed me a napkin, she politely asked if I wanted peanuts or cookies. I looked at the advertisement on the napkin and responded, “Peanuts.” “What would you like to drink?” was the next question. “I’ll have juice,” I said.
As she handed me the peanuts and juice, I couldn’t help but smile as I noticed all the branding in front of me. I purchased the plane ticket from the airline and am a customer of the airline. But as a customer of the airline, they are still advertising beverages and snacks to me. Sure, they are free to me. The airline could produce and package peanuts and soda pop, but it would be a costly venture. But why would soda and snack manufacturers want their products served on an airplane? The snack manufacturers acquire not only a distribution channel but also advertisements. The airline and the snack manufacturers established a strategic alliance.
Strategic alliances—formal business relationships between independent organizations to fulfill agreed-upon goals—are common in the business industry. A Google news search will produce thousands of articles about recent strategic alliances in less than a second. Whereas strategic alliances are common in the business world, they are an anomaly in the world of missions. Yet Avant Ministries has entered into a shared services alliance with CrossWorld, another missionary organization.
Why would one missionary organization decide to form an alliance with another? The answers for a mission agency are similar to that of the airline serving peanuts and soda pop: efficiency, autonomy, opportunity, and cooperation.
Efficiency is a byproduct of the biblical principle of stewardship. Good stewardship demands we continually explore better ways to use the sacrificial gifts from our donors. In the ministry world, we are held to a higher standard than traditional businesses. Not only do we see our work as a calling from God, but we are expected to be financially responsible for the money entrusted to us by our giving community. This standard makes us analyze every expenditure and look for the most cost-efficient way of conducting ministry.
Increasingly in missions, our constituents expect that we be transparent in the usage of donated funds. Because donors desire accountability, mission agencies also need to be efficient. Donors want to know how their dollars are spent, what projects are being funded, and how lives are being changed. They are right to ask these questions, and it is our responsibility as leaders to provide them with answers. In 2006, there were approximately 1.4 million 501(c) (3) organizations in the U.S. registered with the IRS. This statistic represents the myriad of choices to donors. With so many organizations asking for their investments, donors are asking more questions about where their dollars are going and how they are being used.
Recent scandals in the business world have resulted in increased accounting regulations that cost organizations time and money, affecting both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. Employees are spending tremendous amounts of time recording and filing the appropriate forms to demonstrate the use of proper accounting procedures.
The shared services alliance talks between Avant and CrossWorld began at a CrossGlobal Link conference with Scott Holbrook, CFO and acting president/CEO of Avant Ministries, and Phil Lindner, CFO for CrossWorld. As Holbrook and Lindner began talking about the time they invested in maintaining records, preparing accounting reports, and submitting forms, they recognized the principle of good stewardship and the opportunity for a strategic alliance. The men wondered, “Although both missions are financially stable, could two organizations, similar in size with a common value set, combine multiple tasks to reduce overhead expenses?” As one would expect from accountants, they began crunching numbers.
People join mission agencies for a number of reasons. They join because they see the heart and passion of the mission and can visualize themselves as a part of the movement. Leaders of mission agencies must continually adapt long-term vision and strategy to maintain a presence in international ministry, allowing missionaries to serve where God has called them. By adapting to changes in our culture, we can ensure our agency’s relevancy in the world.
An agency’s organizational culture is created by leadership and exercised through all aspects of the organization. While Avant and CrossWorld have focused on church planting for quite some time, leadership at both organizations wanted to keep individual organizational ethos the same, each detached from the other. The shared services alliance would not dictate ministry philosophy, but create organizational efficiency.
The leadership teams were looking at ways to reduce costs that could make each organization more efficient while still maintaining separate cultures. Back-office functions of the organization could be shared while still retaining separate identities. Holbrook and Lindner identified accounting, information technology, medical claims, mail processing, and hospitality facilities as areas that could be combined. These are essential functions which support field and ministry initiatives but don’t mold or shape them.
The alliance only accounts for back-end functions. However, having neighbors who share a similar passion and vision for ministry will create opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas. Both staff will be parking in the same parking lot, eating in the same lunchroom, and using the same campus facilities, so naturally there will be a sharing of ideas. The strengths of Avant will influence CrossWorld and vice versa. Ideas will be shared and strategy discussed, yet each organization will function independently from the other—ultimately making its own decisions aligned with its own philosophy.
After the idea was born and the numbers crunched, Holbrook and Lindner approached the leadership of their organizations with the concept of shared services. It consisted of sharing back-office functions to reduce expenses, thus creating leaner organizations that operate more efficiently. They were not looking at shared services due to current economic trends, but rather as a principle of stewardship and efficiency.
Holbrook and Lindner also realized they might have stumbled across an alternative solution to mergers. Mergers are commonplace practice for missionary-sending organizations, and even in their own histories, Avant and CrossWorld have absorbed other agencies. Mergers allow missionaries to stay on the field with full agency support. Mergers also increase the size of the mission and sometimes open new fields for ministry. However, neither Avant nor CrossWorld were interested in a merger; each agency was was committed to continuing its current long-term vision and culture. A shared services alliance was the most appealing option for both organizations.
Since the two agencies could find no model to follow, Avant and CrossWorld brought in a high-profile consultant group to guide the two organizations through the process. The consultants helped the two organizations develop relevant agreements which included different facets of the alliance: structure, operating principles, responsibilities, and a lease agreement.
The shared services staff will serve both Avant and CrossWorld, and these staff members will have their time and salaries shared by the two organizations. CrossWorld made plans to move from their current offices in Pennsylvania to the Avant campus in Kansas City, where architects are designing a wing to be built onto the Avant building for CrossWorld staff and a shared services wing connecting the Avant and CrossWorld offices. Being in close physical proximity, the shared services staff can work more directly with both organizations, which is a benefit over outsourcing. The staff can understand what is happening in each organization and be actively involved with people and projects.
Community and collaboration are not new concepts in the world of international mission agencies. On-field partnerships between two organizations are common and ministry work is characterized by a sense of friendly cooperation. It is not uncommon for mission agencies to share what they have learned on the field with other agencies, hoping to see the message of the gospel furthered and lives transformed. This sharing encompasses what missionaries and agencies have learned about people, culture, languages, and business.
Infinitely less common, Avant and CrossWorld have taken these valuable concepts and applied them to the home front, finding a way to cooperate on operation and support services that will allow each agency to funnel more energy and resources toward the field. Probably the most exciting aspect of this alliance is the idea of kingdom collaboration. The sharing of ideas will happen continuously, in real time. The alliance will allow two organizations who are passionate about the same goal—seeing people from every tribe, tongue, and nation worship the Savior—to collaborate and share ideas.
Missionary agencies are different from normal businesses. They are not competitors. CrossWorld is not a competitor of Avant, neither is any other agency. I realized this a few weeks ago while a vendor sat in my office. He presented me work his organization did for another faith-based organization in our city. As we were discussing the quality of the project, I commented that it was what I had been looking for in a vendor; I then thanked him for showing me the work.
It was only after that he told me he was apprehensive about bringing the project, as he considered us competitors. Avant is not in competition with other agencies. We are already competing for the hearts and minds of people worldwide. While truth is consistent and unchanging, other distractions are grabbing the hearts of people all across the globe. Avant and CrossWorld are co-laborers in the timeless calling of missions.
What is next for Avant and CrossWorld? The real story is about people who are a part of something bigger than themselves. Every day I enter Avant’s offices and see the Global Status of Evangelical Christianity map distributed by the International Mission Board. The map has eight colors demonstrating the known status of evangelical Christianity in every country. This map graphically demonstrates the continued need for Christ all across the globe. It is my desire and the desire of the people I work with to see these colors change in our lifetime, to see more lives come to Jesus.
An Update: One Year Later
On September 1, 2009, shared services between CrossWorld and Avant officially began. There have been some hiccups along the way, but the dedicated staff of both missions have adapted and are now faithfully serving both organizations. Their time and responsibilities are shared between both organizations.
Having a construction project happen simultaneously to daily office life is not always convenient, but it is well worth the inconvenience. The foundation of the addition is now poured. Workers strategize to frame the walls and run the electrical and the pipes in the plumbing. However, there is far more represented in the construction than the pouring of concrete and the framing of walls. A new era of missionary agency cooperation has begun.
In a few months the drilling, hammering, and sawing will all stop. The construction foreman and his crew will pack their equipment and move on to another project. The addition will quickly fill up as staff occupy their new offices. The sign out front will read Avant Ministries and CrossWorld.
While missionary agencies are not traditional businesses and shouldn’t be run as such, there are still strategies from the for-profit world that can be beneficial for agency use. As businesses adapt to consumer changes, cultures, and policies to be relevant and sustainable, missionary agencies must do the same.
Agencies walk a fine line of operating as a business and operating as a faith-based institution. I am happy to be a part of Avant during this time of collaboration with CrossWorld through the shared services alliance, because it ushers in a new era for missions. Avant and CrossWorld are creating a model which can be replicated by many to benefit the kingdom in ways which have not yet been discovered. The shared services alliance brings efficiency, autonomy, cooperation, and collaboration to both organizations. As Christians, we should be working together for the greater good of the kingdom; that is what the shared services alliance demonstrates.
The initial illustration provided was about peanuts and soda pop on an airplane and the question was asked if the peanuts and soda pop were needed. The answer is yes, because they benefit the airlines, the manufacturers, and the passengers. The shared services alliance benefits the missionary agencies, their donors, and people on the field.
I encourage missionary agencies and other non-profits to observe the dynamic changes happening in the business world and see how we can apply those changes to make a larger kingdom impact. The shared services alliance between Avant and CrossWorld is only the first step in taking missionary agency cooperation to the next level. Imagine what could be accomplished through simple partnerships, such as “peanuts and soda pop,” which can bring value to all parties, including organizations and customers.
Ted Draper is director of public relations and media for Avant Ministries. He holds degrees in communications from the University of Tennessee and an MBA from Bryan College. His professional background includes television, sales, marketing, and international business. Ted resides in Kansas City with his wife and two children.
EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 466-470. Copyright © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.