Who decides the future?
Years ago, the wife of a ministry leader would only allow the editorial staff to print the ministry’s magazine in black and red.
In another ministry, the wife of the ministry leader signs off on all the ministry’s marketing plans. “Will Mrs. Z like it?” is the final strategic question of every planning session.
Mrs. Z certainly means well. She has the ministry’s best interests at heart. But the weight her preferences carry doesn’t match up with her expertise on the subject. You see, Mrs. Z doesn’t have a marketing degree, or a track record of marketing successes. She’s deferred to simply because she’s married to the ministry’s leader.
–> Looking across the ministry landscape, we see numerous versions of this scenario: people connected (by blood, marriage, or longtime friendship) to the ministry leader, assigned some task, and bringing their outsized influence to bear upon the marketing process:
- “No phone calls to donors.”
- “Full color in the newsletter looks too flashy.”
- “No photos of Dad without a necktie!”
- “The newsletter has to be full-color or it looks tacky.”
- “Two-page limit on appeal letters.”
- “No underlining.”
- “Okay, underlining — but not handwritten.”
- “Okay, handwritten — but only in black, never in blue.”
- And the list goes on.
In any event, someone has managed to gain a foothold in the marketing of the ministry — control of the budget, or the purchasing of supplies, or the selection of thank-you gifts for donors, or the mailing schedule — and in spite of however wrong they may be about whatever issue, they hold the reins. The ministry leader defers to their judgment, and they decide marketing issues. \
–> Of course, in other ministries, it’s the opposite situation: A ministry leader who won’t defer to anyone — not the team of experts he’s hired, or even a mother or a brother-in-law — for fresh ideas and opinions.
You can’t fault him for caring. He’s deeply invested in this ministry — passionate about its success. But the ministry leader is so sold on his own instincts that he starts to micromanage beyond his ministry wheelhouse — in marketing and fundraising.
- He’s got a bad feeling about this technique or that — personalized letters have a bad reputation with him, or all response forms have to be identical.
- Or he likes a certain look and doesn’t want to tamper with it.
And no amount of reasoning will move him off his hunch.
This kind of rigidity is even more alarming when one considers how many heads of ministries live in a “bubble,” something like the President of the United States, sealed in on Day One — a bubble full of unique comforts, unique pressures, and unique side-effects — and a bubble in which the President is trapped until leaving office.
Living in the bubble, it is virtually impossible for them to get in touch with the way real people live.
Some ministry leaders become consumed by their work, having little interests and no “civilian” friends outside the ministry. Maybe no non-Christian friends at all. They may lose touch with how regular everyday people think, feel, hurt — and how their affections are swayed.
So they trust their own instincts (sometimes hanging their opinions on God’s influence, although it’s often unfair to blame Him) — or they trust Mom’s. They feel they’re leading a ministry, but in fact they are flying blind. Circumstances are guiding them, not the other way around.
Does this description sound way too harsh to apply to your ministry? Maybe so. But the seemingly honorable attitude of self-reliance — we might call it donor relations blindness — manifests itself in a variety of symptoms.
Maybe you don’t like the idea of being blind. Then again, you may have to admit that you have one or more of its side-effects.
We’ll look at just one here, and more in subsequent posts.
The Test Ban
Test marketing packages or concepts before committing to use them with your entire donor family.
The leader of a ministry with over 100,000 names on its donor file wanted to solicit pledges of monthly support, something he had never done before. An agency helped him come up with a few ideas for a monthly donor program; he fell in love with one of them. Let’s test the three strongest ideas on 1,000 or 5,000 names a piece, the agency said. No, he said, this is the winning idea. And he mailed that series of pledge recruitment packages to all 100,000 names.
Was it an act of faith? Or foolishness?
By God’s grace, the campaign succeeded — at least the mailings didn’t lose money. But no one will never know if the ministry could have generated 20% more monthly pledgers — or 50%, or 100%, or 200% more monthly pledgers — by mailing a different series of packages.
To the ministry leader who says, in essence, “I don’t test; I just trust,” we offer this encouragement:
–> Testing doesn’t reflect a lack of faith; rather, it reflects a sensitivity to your donor.
–> Testing recognizes that we may accidentally miss the mark and speak to the donor in a way she can’t appreciate.
When you discover you’ve sent a “losing” appeal (or mounted a “losing” donor-calling test) to only 1,000 of your 20,000 donors, you have minimized the damage to your ministry and to your donor relationships.
Perhaps the most serious “damage” you’ve done to the donors who received the test is that you’ve cheated them out of the blessing of responding more generously to your need.
Testing is easier and less expensive now, in the digital age, than it has ever been. Test an appeal via email before sending a letter in the mail.
Yet testing is the lost art of Christian ministry. It’s troubling how seldom it’s done.
And when we crash, we wonder why.