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Staying “on mission” in tough economic times

News flash: We are living in tough economic times.

USA Today (December 2, 2008) reported on a November 2008 study conducted by Barna Group that “more than two in three adults (68%) say they have been affected by the dire economy and 22% said they have been impacted in a ‘major way.’” Not surprisingly, this is impacting how people give. The same study found that “the degree of reduction in giving is significant for churches.” Among people who have decreased giving to churches and religious centers

• 19% dropped their giving by as much as 20%.

• 5% decreased their generosity by 21% to 49%.

• 17% reduced their giving by half.

• 11% sliced their provision by more than half.

In addition, 22% said they had stopped their giving altogether.

Given these statistics, how are faith-based organizations to survive the current economy and position themselves for a bright future? Historically, organizations operating in similar times have tended to do one of three things: 1) go into hiding and ignore reality, 2) believe that their mission is “too important to fail” and fail to act or 3) panic and do things that undermine the future.

Interestingly, the organizations most likely to survive an economic crisis are characterized not by an attitude of “wait it out,” but one of “make it happen.” Further, taking even a few wise steps toward improving your organizational health may bolster the support of your donor base now and put you in a better position to thrive when the economy improves. This occurs because, while some donors are willing to make one-time gifts to support a struggling organization, far more are motivated by an enterprise that remains true to its mission and makes the necessary decisions during difficult times.

Here are some steps you can take as early as this next week to “make it happen.”

1. Get an objective look at your organization from the perspective of your best constituency members/customers. Who are they? Contact them. Find out what you are doing right and what you can do better.

2. Look at your organization from the perspective of the constituency/customers you just lost or are likely to lose. Name them and contact them.

3. Fix what is broken. If your feedback suggests that there are areas of needed improvement, have the courage to do what will make you more effective at serving your mission.

4. State in simple terms why constituency members should support your organization. What is your value proposition that needs to be communicated?

5. Look beyond your traditional constituency for individuals or groups whose needs you may be able to serve.

6. Name and communicate what you are good at that is absolutely critical to serving your mission. Maybe it is the strength of particular staff members or a program that gives your organization special meaning in the community.

7. Cut unnecessary costs. Most organizations create expensive bad habits during the good times; this is the time to return to a frugal organizational lifestyle. But make sure you do not cut costs from areas that undermine your ability to serve your mission. If you do not know what is critical, you just may cut the lifeline to your organization.

8. Promote, promote, promote. Yes, it will cost you some money, but if there is ever a time when you need to get your message out, it is now. Do not cut your newsletter, your website, your email communication, etc. If anything, try to find a way to increase your message. Ironically, communication with the constituency is often one of the first expenses to be cut; this is a big mistake.

9. If you’re planning something BIG for your future, consider acting now. This may sound counter-intuitive. But the history of organizational growth suggests that many of the “leaders” emerged out of bad times when they had the courage to go for something while others were waiting out the economy. For example, some organizations are currently taking advantage of very low construction costs by proceeding with projects. Be assured, AAI is not encouraging unwise debt. But with wise financial management and a compelling mission/vision, this may be the time to move forward.

Have any of the ideas mentioned here piqued your interest? We would be glad to visit further to discuss how they might apply to your unique situation or to answer any questions you may have.

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Two kinds of research

Advancement Associates, Inc. (AAI) believes in the helpfulness of research and relies on research results to shape its counsel. Associate Michael Wiese, professor of marketing at Anderson (IN) University and widely known for his expertise in research, typically leads AAI’s research projects.

AAI carries out two kinds of research, each of them useful in particular circumstances. One type is called qualitative research, the other quantitative (or scientific) research.

Qualitative research comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Qualitative methods to answer research questions include interviews, open-ended response analysis, focus groups and observation research.

Many clients ask questions such as: Does our constituency still believe in us? Do we maintain good relationships with them? Do our constituents approve the plans that we have made? Will they support the plans with interest, prayers, and funds?

Such questions are typically answered through the use of feasibility studies, some of which are qualitative in design, other are scientific. In the qualitative studies, AAI consultants prepare a questionnaire schedule, then conduct one-hour in-depth interviews with crucial stakeholders. Skills in asking questions, following up replies with more questions, giving engaged listening, and then compiling results can be invaluable for organizational planning.

AAI has done qualitative feasibility studies having to do with capital campaigns, marketing audits, program designs, communication effectiveness and organizational image.

Scientific research calls for a rigor that permits analysis to a designated degree of reliability and validity. The design of questions, the selection of a random sample that is large enough to represent the whole, the control of questionnaire completion, the ability to make statistical inferences all contribute to the authority of scientific research. In many cases, scientific research costs more.

The problem calling for research may need a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods to most fully answer questions.

Good counsel may, at times, arise from the years of experience of consultants. Sometimes it comes from “a gut feeling.” But in many circumstances, the right word of counsel is based upon careful qualitative or quantitative investigation.

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Mennonite Manor case study

Over the last few years a number of our clients have engaged in market research. Among them are schools working to improve their image and/or increase their enrollment; retirement centers considering a new approach to long-term care; and a church conference wanting to better support its pastors. In each case, these organizations were motivated by a genuine desire to provide their clients with service that was more accessible, more comprehensive and more relevant. All concluded that conducting market research would be an important step to this end.

In 2008 AAI had the opportunity to conduct substantial qualitative market research for Mennonite Manor, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in South Hutchinson, KS. (As opposed to quantitative research, which deals with random samples, percentages, figures and probabilities, qualitative research uses such tools as interviews, open-ended response analysis, focus groups and observation research; for more information, see “Two kinds of research.”)

After a difficult period in its history Mennonite Manor was looking to regain the positive reputation it had enjoyed for years in the greater Hutchinson community. The Manor was also considering an innovative approach to long-term care. Competition in the local service area is intense and a comprehensive marketing strategy was needed.

Mennonite Manor CEO Lowell Peachey explains it this way: “My experience is that most organizations promote their superior customer service as a distinguishing feature. Obviously not everyone can be superior – if all are superior all are average.”

AAI conducted 40 in-depth interviews to unearth the deep sentiments related to life transitions that lead older persons and their families to consider a continuing care living arrangement. Associate Michael Wiese prepared the interview instrument, designing it around five specific objectives:

1. To define a clear strategic vision, consistent with its mission and values, which would differentiate Mennonite Manor from other retirement communities in its service area.

2. To understand the living experience that makes a retirement community preferable and desirable.

3. To gain insights that would further align the Mennonite Manor experience with the organization’s strategic vision.

4. To determine the messages for creating a unique integrated marketing communication approach that would effectively brand Mennonite Manor.

5. To discover how constituency members view Mennonite Manor relative to other senior living centers in the area.

The three-person research group, which also included Principal Becky Drumm and Associate Dan Hess, met for a day of training. It became clear during this process that the nature of the interviews would require a high level of adaptability and together, the three revised the instrument accordingly.

Becky and Dan each conducted 20 interviews with a cross-section of participants representing five constituency groups. These conversations allowed the researchers to independently draw conclusions about what they heard. The nature of the interviews often evoked heart-felt conversations through which respondents discovered and expressed inner emotions related to their childhood homes, describing their current homes and anticipating their future homes. The conversations also allowed people to share their perceptions of the various senior living facilities available in the area, including Mennonite Manor.

Sessions were recorded, allowing Mike to replay the conversations and record notes for each interview. After completing an analysis of each interview, Becky and Dan also independently provided Mike with an analysis of overall findings, reflecting the interviews each conducted. Mike then read the summaries for each conversation and conducted a “compare and contrast” review of the two interviewers’ reports.

These findings have led to important insights that can effectively guide strategy for Mennonite Manor. “What we’re trying to do in this process,” says Peachey, “is determine the core differences between the Manor and competitor organizations and actually build our programs and services around these distinguishing hallmarks. We are also developing internal standards that can be measured in terms of behaviors and using these standards to create a unique experience that will attract both residents and staff to our community.”

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Cost-effective market research

Market research. These two words might evoke a variety of responses within an organization. Some might be intimidated by the mere thought (“I don’t know how.”) Others might question the need (“Ya, right?”) or financial wisdom (“I can’t afford it.”) To these folks, the suggestion may sound like one of those consultants trying to drum up some more business. Still others might see the benefits of market research but it gets perpetually lost in the shuffle of other tasks that are more pressing and take priority.

At AAI, when we suggest that every organization regularly conducts market research, we don’t necessarily imply a major scientific study where you hire a consultant, spend six months gathering data and then you get a report and a bill. Although there are times when this is exactly what is needed, many critical insights that will help your organization more effectively and efficiently achieve its mission can be gleaned with NO RESEARCH BUDGET.

The most profitable patrons and most generous constituency members that you will ever have are likely to be the ones that you already have, the ones that are in front of you all the time. Can you afford to lose them? If not, what are you doing to ensure that this doesn’t happen? The simplest, cheapest form of market research is to listen to your customers.

  • Have you talked to your customers and/or primary constituency members lately about how you are doing as an organization?
  • Do you invite their honest feedback or do you have a “don’t complain to me” mentality?
  • When you hear concerns, do you take them seriously and, whenever possible, resolve them?
  • If you cannot fix the problem, do you empathize with the person and give good explanations for why things are the way they are?

This is why ongoing communication with these people is important. Research of customers lost by 14 major companies found that only 15% switched because they found a better product/service and another 15% because they found a better price. What happened to the rest? This 70% did not continue to buy from the company because of poor or little attention.

Another study found that only 4% of dissatisfied customers even complain. Between 54% and 70% of unhappy customers that do not complain continue doing business with the firm. But, of the 4% that actually complain, 95% of them are retained, when the organization appropriately responds to the issue.

Listening and responding is excellent market research. Here is a simple plan for listening to your customers/constituency that will not cost you anything.

  1. Find out who your best customers/constituency members are. Generally, a mere 20% of these people produce approximately 80% of your revenues/gifts. You probably know who they are immediately. If not, track your records and find out who they are.
  2. Find a way to talk with them (or a sample of them). The conversation may happen naturally the next time you see them. Maybe you need to cut out a little part of the day to make one phone call a day to chat. Or, get a small group of them together for a lunch just to talk about how you are doing and what you can do to better serve them. Maybe email will work for you instead of the phone. Some on-line software programs allow you to create a simple questionnaire and email it to your contact list. For example, at you can conduct your own little research project for just a small monthly fee.
  3. Have a clear idea of what you want to know. Don’t just call to say hi and talk about the weather. Write down, before you call, the specific questions that you want to ask. Some examples may be, 1) Why do you send your kids to this school and not one of the others in the area, 2) What is it that we do right, 3) What have we done that dissatisfied you, and 4) What actions can we take to improve how we serve you?
  4. Do something with the input. Make an improvement. Share what you are learning and how the information is being used to make operations/ministry more effective. Let others know that their opinions matter and that you are all working as a team to make the organization better. This will encourage further dialogue and begin the cycle of improvement that will help your organization better achieve its mission.

Someone once said, “We should all listen twice as much as we talk; why else do you think God gave us two ears and one mouth?” Listening to your best customers/constituency members is a wise move that doesn’t have to cost you anything. On the other hand, not doing it may cost you a lot.