Strategy & Marketing

How Should Churches, Ministries, and Non-Profits Respond to the Current Financial Dilemma?

Reading the newspaper or listening to the TV news makes it hard not to wonder about the economy. Some say it’s getting stronger, while others protest it’s in a serious crisis. It takes up the majority of the presidential candidates speech time, and it’s pretty much 24/7 on the cable news channels. Whatever is going on, it’s important that non-profits understand the connections between the economy and giving. There’s little empirical data out there on the issue, but experience is a good teacher, and you need some tools to work with as your consider your strategy for the coming months. Here are my thoughts on the current economic situation and how it could impact your organization. I would encourage you to meet with your team and make sure they understand these important principles:

1) Don’t overreact. Too many organizations panic during times like this, and make decisions they regret later. Don’t assume the worst, and don’t be afraid. Remember – one of the reasons it’s big news is the presidential election, which feeds on conflict. Second, the cable news machine needs to be fed 24 hours a day, so they can make issues seem far more important than they really are. Is this serious? Yes. But it’s not time to freak out.

2) Focus on the mission. Too many churches and ministry organizations find success, grow, and then forget the original mission. That’s usually because they become distracted with how to pay for the mission. So let’s go back to the beginning. Why did you start this organization? What are your priorities? Never lose sight of that during challenging times. It will help keep you focused. And keep the results in front of the congregation or donors. Especially during challenging times they want to know where the money is going, so keep them updated. Let them know how your work is impacting lives.

3) Streamline carefully. I always advocate a lean, mean, mission machine. So what are “convenience” areas in the organization that have grown fat? Did you start additional mission outreaches for the wrong reasons? Do they really compliment your brand identity? Don’t hack, but start looking at areas and departments that don’t really reflect your calling, aren’t getting results, or confuse your mission in the mind of donors.

4) Start saving with materials, not people. If you get to the point where you need to make serious cuts, before you start laying off anyone, let’s look at materials first. Could you use less expensive paper? Could you save on your light bill? Because Prestonwood Church in Dallas is such a large facility, Pastor Jack Graham has actually appointed a staff member in charge of energy conservation. It was such a bold and unusual move, the story has been written up in the national news. Pastor Graham discovered the cost savings can be enormous if you simply become proactive in conserving energy costs. Likewise, are there office supplies, paper grades, insurance carriers, phone or IT services, or other areas where serious cost comparisons could save you money?

5) Don’t cut your lifelines. Never forget that outside God of course, your congregation and/or donors are your source – and your media outreaches are your lifeline to that source. A few years ago a couple of national media ministries cut as many as 1/3 of their TV stations to save money – without realizing they were cutting 1/3 of their donor contact. Even after a few years, they still have yet to recover. It’s important to constantly evaluate results, make changes, and tweak, but be very careful about drastic media changes just to save money. Your most vital links to your donors are your media – radio & TV, website, and direct mail. And be sure you understand the relationship. Radio & TV is about perception, and direct mail is about results. One national media leader described it as “Because of radio and TV people know who we are, and because of direct mail, they support us.” TV won’t generate much income, but you can’t expand your audience and donors with just mail. Working together is the key. One can’t work effectively without the other. The only exception is at a local level, where mail may be your only option. In that case, focus your message, target the audience, and be as original and efficient as possible.

6) If you’re on radio or TV, work your media buy. When and where your radio or TV program is broadcast can make a dramatic difference in response. Don’t just cut your stations at random like the earlier example, but constantly tweak and adjust to make sure your program is reaching the right audience. Too many organizations hire media buyers and then never hear from them again. When was the last time you had a presentation from your media buyer with recommendations and new ideas? A good media buyer should be proactive – constantly looking out for the best place for your program. And by the way, that’s a continuous process. Once they get an available time slot, they shouldn’t stop working for you. Press them. Challenge their placement decisions. Make them keep earning their money.

7) Be open to change. Too many churches and ministries go through economic downturns because they’re unwilling to experiment and try something new. Some fear the longtime donors will get upset if they change the program. Others are insecure, and still others just can’t get out of their self-imposed box. You’ll never know how far you can reach unless you try.

8) Don’t change too often. Having said #7, I also know some organizations that won’t stick with something long enough for it to work. I believe in the power of change, but innovation needs time to succeed. Make changes, but don’t let fear haunt you with self-doubt. With one former client we would spend all day in a creative meeting laying out a new strategy, but by the time I got home on the plane, I had a phone message that he’d changed his mind. He was consumed with insecurity and self-doubt and couldn’t rustle up the courage to commit. As a result, his ministry never reached it’s potential.

9) Sell the change to your congregation or donors. Don’t just make changes and expect everyone to love it. Your listeners or viewers need to know your heart, and why change is happening. Joyce Meyer did this brilliantly when she rebranded a few years ago. After spending months sharing why she felt reaching a new generation was critical, her donors jumped onboard with great excitement. Don’t leave your donors in the dark. Give them a vision, allow them to participate, and give them a sense of ownership in the mission.

10) Keep Growing. Once you discover the over-arching brand story that describes your ministry, it’s only the beginning. You should be constantly searching for how that story can impact this culture. Are you reading books, magazines, and newspapers, watching TV and movies, and engaging the culture? I listen to some pastors and ministry leaders who are trapped somewhere in the 70’s or 80’s. Don’t chase trends, but study them to see where the culture is going. There’s an old advertising saying that: “Once product sales are down, it’s too late to advertise.” Telling your story should be an ongoing process – and you should always be looking for original and innovative ways to engage. If you’re telling the same stories or preaching from the same notes you made 10 years ago, then you’re behind the curve. The great thing about the Bible is that it answers the “now” questions of life, and far too many pastors are answering yesterday’s questions.

Be encouraged. The church has survived persecution, abandonment, and neglect. So a financial downturn can’t stop the message. But be prudent, and make the kind of decisions you’ll be proud to look back on later. In the meantime, let’s continue this conversation. From this point on, working together and unifying the message is the key to breaking through these financially challenging times.

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  1. Phil, I would add spend money on things that make money.  How many times has the CFO come in and said everyone's budget is getting cut – including fundraising and catalog/sales.  I've had CFO's reject purchase orders for more inventory for sales we had already made because they wanted to lower expenses.  And I just had a ministry tell me they didn't want to hire a Director of Development because they were worried about the economy.  Fund positive ROI.

  2. Phil, the points you raise are right on the money…and critically important to wisely weigh and act upon…we say we live in a "global community"… during a time of financial recession at home in the USA, why not lift up our eyes to possibilities outside the country and realize the opportunities within other nations or geographic regions where the economic picture is strong, vibrant and a sound ongoing operational investment??…there is a solution to every challenge we face, we simply may need to think a bit more "outside the box", allow ourselves the creative license we need to conceive and implement something we haven't done before…the right international placement and involvement will help to diversify your revenue streams and take pressure off the purse at home in the USA…this is not the time to grab all we can, can all we get, and sit on the can…this is the time to look beyond our borders to international opportunites that are sound, responsive markets to effectively position ourselves in long term…

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