Running Strong With Two Underappreciated Growth Strategies (Part I)

Maybe your ministry is one of the few that is on a solid growth trajectory. Statistically, however, it’s far more likely that your ministry is struggling to predictably grow, year in and year out.

Usually, ministries tell themselves, “Well, that’s because we lost our major donor rep in such and such area,” or “We’re down because of such and such natural disaster,” or “It was a big election year.” Year in and year out, ministries have their go-to reasons for why they aren’t growing.

This just in: For as far into the future as the eye can see, you’re going to lose major donor reps, and there are going to be natural disasters, and — pending a break in 230 years of American tradition — there are going to be big election years. If your mission is worth doing, it’s worth developing a revenue-generation strategy that succeeds in the face of these predictable challenges.

Step 1 is to determine whether your revenue-generation operations are failing on the fundamentals. If your website, digital media, social advertising, direct mail, mid-major, email, content marketing, product sales or major donor operations are subpar, then by all means, “hie thee” to a topflight agency to help you fix those problems. I’m partial to Masterworks (shocker!).

Most ministries don’t go beyond Step 1.

Step 2 requires more courage — building a portfolio of exponential growth strategies. Two types are of particular note: new audiences and new products. My colleague Mark Neigh and I will help you get started with these strategies in our “Innovation Strategies That Work” session at the CLA Outcomes conference in Dallas, TX on April 19, at 2 p.m.

Why You Need a New Audience

The first and most obvious question is, “What’s wrong with my current audience?” Nothing whatsoever! In most instances, it’s simply too small. Ministries’ audiences typically form around strong, straightforward descriptions of their missions and programs. The result is a dedicated, niche audience and an attendant ministry messaging machine that pumps out refined, proven red meat for the diehards.

This is great…until you run out of diehards.

If your audience acquisition efforts are stalling, you’re probably running out of diehards. It’s time to imagine some adjacent audiences you might explorewhat Arthur Brooks in Harvard Business Review calls your “persuadables.” These are going to be a more difficult audience for you, simply because they aren’t yet persuaded. But they can be won over with the right approach.

Why You Need New Products

“Excuse me, but we’re a ministry. We are called to help people, not create and sell ‘products.’ ” A lot of nonprofits feel this way, and it’s understandable. If a product is, as Merriam-Webster says, “something produced; something marketed and sold,” then that feels like a crass descriptor for the work to which God has called ministries.

But we’re not necessarily talking about the mission to which God has called you. We’re talking about the way you involve His people in it. For example, God calls certain poverty relief ministries to employ community development practices when helping people in need. Those are their mission and program operations. But their products are the unique, relatable and motivating ways they connect people to participate in the work, such as disaster relief partners, child sponsorship and peer-to-peer fundraising teams.

You might not think of these as products, but that’s a missed opportunity. Because once we understand that these are products — a way of making our work amazing and accessible to supporters, such that it uniquely drives and rewards their curiosity — we can tap into the discipline of product development as a source of new supporter participation. In other words, growth.

And that’s the point. Marketing and fundraising promotion aren’t your only growth drivers. Introducing new products and continually improving them to drive supporter participation needs to be one of your primary growth drivers. Some large nonprofits have entire products divisions.

In Part II, we’ll begin exploring the process of growing new audiences and products. And if you are going to CLA’s Outcomes conference later this month, I hope you’ll attend our “Innovation Strategies That Work!” session. I’d also love the chance to meet up with you and learn about what you’re doing to innovate in your ministry (email me and we’ll link up!).