Strategy & Marketing

5 Things Traditional, Legacy Ministries Must Do To Survive

Back in the fifties through the eighties, there were some massive evangelistic and social service ministries created that did amazing work around the world (and some still are). From Campus Crusade, The Jesus Film Project, Feed the Children, the Navigators, The Gideons – plus big evangelistic organizations like Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, and many more, these ministry and nonprofit organizations had a global impact and raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort. But today some of the large, legacy ministries are struggling. After seeing many of these organizations from the inside, and from my experience engaging today’s culture, here’s five things these organizations need to do to transition and stay relevant to the next generation:

1) Realize that the world is changing and so should you.   That doesn’t mean you compromise your message or mission, but what worked in the 70’s or 80’s probably isn’t going to work now. The donor development campaign that brought in so much financial support in 1986 isn’t going to be as effective today. Get over it and move on. Robert Schuller founded his ministry on the revolutionary idea of a “drive-in church.” He was radically creative and original. But once the ministry grew, they stopped innovating. Was it fear? Who knows? But there’s never a time to stop innovating and listening to the culture.

2) Different generations communicate in different ways.   The group that built most of these high-impact ministries responded to direct mail. I respond to email. My kids respond to texting or online giving. That doesn’t necessarily mean you drop direct mail, because the older generation still likes that method. It’s not about how you want to communicate to them, it’s how they want to communicate to you. A smart ministry or nonprofit will always communicate their message through multiple pathways to reach every potential donor.

3) Stop thinking your older donors are old-fashioned and traditional.   I can’t even begin to describe how much ministries and nonprofits buy into the myth that contemporary styles and communication methods turn off older donors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fastest growing market for mobile devices is senior citizens, but you never see an iPhone commercial featuring an old guy on his walker talking on his iPhone. Old people want to be cool too. Just take the time to sell the re-brand. Embrace your older donors and make them part of the change. After all, they want to reach their kids and grandkids and understand what it takes to make that happen.

4) Focus on your strengths.   Back in the day, many of these huge organizations had the budgets to do everything. They did Bible translations, live evangelistic events, Christian education, media production, medical outreaches, food distribution, dug water wells, built Bible schools, and much more. But today, it’s time to focus on your strengths. Have the courage to cut away the weak areas, so you can strengthen what you’re best at providing. This is a “niche” world, so it’s far better to be amazing at one big thing, than just average at many things. Everyone wants to see results, so focus your guns on a smaller target.

5) Tell your story more effectively.   We live in a media driven culture, and without video, social media, and a compelling web presence, you don’t exist to most people. Here’s some tips to start:

– Video is about emotion, not statistics or information. Stop boring your audiences with how many wonderful things you’ve done and start telling compelling stories about lives that have been changed because of your work.

– Social media is just that – social. Twitter and Facebook aren’t megaphones where you blast announcements. Social media is a conversation with your followers, supporters, and donors. Engage and respond, don’t shout.

– Yesterday it was about telling your story in a handful of ways – books, direct mail, or broadcast TV. Today, it’s about telling your story on multiple platforms. People won’t come to you, so you have to go to them. Get your story out there and be original and compelling. And while you’re at it, share that message in a language and style today’s culture understands.

There’s plenty of life left in most of these legacy organizations, because they were founded to accomplish great things.  If you have further questions, I’d encourage you to get my book Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media, and if you’d like to chat, our team at Cooke Media Group is happy to help.   Just let us know.

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  1. Well said. I worked with an aging organization and told them very similar stuff. You must tell your story in a new way and you must adapt.

    1. totally agree, I work with an older megachurch and I am sending them this article right now, it’s very informative and very timely

  2. You’re dead on. Changed thinking is at the core of survival, and some who head long-time ministries have a difficult time changing the way they do things. It’s simple….If you don’t keep changing with culture, you die.

  3. I recently met with an evangelistic association that has been around for decades – but is still innovating. It was refreshing, to say the least. Kudos to those that keep looking at new mediums to connect.

  4. In two years, The Salvation Army will be celebrating 150 years of innovation and serving suffering humanity. This July I was appointed to pioneer online evangelism as the Social Media Chaplain for What an amazing honor and challenge to be responsible for blazing this trail. Thank you Phil, for your support and inspiration. Keep on writing!!!

  5. To have continuous, generation-to-generation innovation, an organization has to have innovation in its culture, not just in its leader. A lot depends on making that transition from a dynamic founder to a dynamic team. Only the founder has the equity to pull off leading as a founder. Those who follow must lead differently.

    If the organization is to continue to thrive, and not just survive, there has to be investment into professional leadership and management. Also a commitment to abandon some of the style and culture that only works with a founder in power. And, to courageously adopt changes that allow for healthy conflict, shared governance, and the hiring of qualified (as well as called) management and staff who can propel the organization ever forward.

  6. Yep, I agree & as a 2nd generation person, these are all helpful. But let’s be careful to encourage those of us who are in this transition, even when we make mistakes. We are learning, growing & want to do well. It’s easy to throw rocks from the sidelines against those who are in the middle of the fray 🙂
    This is not an appeal for self-pity, it’s just a sincere & vulnerable opinion

  7. Leprosy aside, we can learn something from the four lepers in 2 Kings 7. To move from where they were might bring death; staying put guaranteed it. They made the decision to change without knowing the outcome. It’s like that in life: we recognize the need for change, without always knowing the outcome. We don’t have to know the details of where we’re going to change from where we’re at. Tough love, Phil. Thank you for sharing with us.

  8. Amen. This is a brilliant post Phil. Another huge challenge I see are the transition points for many of the legacy ministries when the leaders pass on the baton. This is a great opportunity for refocusing and renewal.

  9. This looks like another great book Phil. Legacy ministries are the foundation of present day media/social media ministries. They’ve contributed greatly to the growth of the Christian body. All Great Stuff. But this success is also the reason many are remembered fondly while losing relevance at the same time.

    As a consultant to some of these organizations, one of the greatest steps is getting each org to have a true assessment of it’s reach/impact. Honest feedback and evaluation is missing. Because of the “fondness” factor, most ministries don’t get unbiased, truthful assessments. It’s difficult to give an honest critique of the very ministry that may have introduced your grandfather or spouse to the gospel. This however is the very thing needed for survival.

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