Congregations almost always say they want to grow, but I’ve come to doubt that many really do. The more accurately people picture how a congregation changes when it grows from family-sized to pastoral, program, corporate and beyond, the more clearly they see that growth means losing the worshiping community they know and love and trading it in for one where they will feel—at least initially—like strangers.
Ministries of service to others pose similar challenges. Like outreach to potential members, serious service to the needy requires donors and volunteers who understand that the church or synagogue exists for others at least as much as it exists to serve its members. Casual generosity will support casual service—sustained social responsibility requires a revolution in most congregations’ understanding of their purpose.
This can make it hard to raise funds for growth or service. We like to have it both ways: believing that we live for others, while at budget time demanding that the congregation focus its resources almost exclusively on satisfying the desires (excuse me, “needs”) of current members.
The trouble with current members, though, is that in the long run they’re all dead. A congregation that intends to thrive for more than a generation needs to have a plan to meet the needs of people who have not yet crossed the threshold. In a congregation where “serving the members’ needs” is primary, it is difficult to gain support for real outreach.
This has long been so but is more so today because of increased physical and theological mobility: it is a rare congregation that realistically expects many of its children to grow up and join it as adults. New members, even those who grew up in a congregation, need to be welcomed with the expectation they will be quite different from the current membership. Even to survive, a church or synagogue needs to look outward more than was necessary even a short time ago.
While this is in part a new reality for congregations, it is not new for other nonprofits. Nonprofit boards and executives manage tensions between two main groups: those the organization serves and those who pay its bills. If congregations are different, it is mainly in how much the two groups overlap, making it harder to manage the tension by encouraging the donors to suppose they are the only beneficiaries.
Imagine for a moment that your congregation were another kind of charity: a health clinic, for example, or an art museum. From your perch as director of development or head of staff, you would see several more or less distinct groups of stakeholders: board members, donors, clinic clients or art lovers, staff, volunteers, and so on.
One group is different from the rest: clients for the clinic, art lovers for the museum. These are people for whose sake the charity exists in the first place. If clients are not cared for, the clinic fails despite a comfortable balance sheet. If art lovers do not learn and grow and become more numerous, the museum fails, though its galas may be the poshest and most popular in town.
As a well-trained, up-to-date nonprofit manager, you realize you need two plans: one for the people whose well-being is at the center of the organization’s mission and another for the people whose support is necessary for success. Management consultant Peter Drucker called the first group “primary customers”: people whose lives will change as a result of the organization’s work. The latter he calls “secondary customers”: people whose support it needs in order to succeed. Both are important, but not equally important; secondary customers are important because of what they make it possible to do for primary customers.
Some people may be both primary and secondary customers (a donor who visits the museum, for example, or a doctor who becomes a patient), but the groups have different needs and wishes and they compete for resources. A local YMCA board member complained to me, “We just approved a capital campaign to build a fancy, high-end health club. I don’t doubt we’ll turn a profit on it, but at some point I hope we’ll think about how, as a YMCA, it might be good to start some sort of program for young men!”
Some things we do in order to raise money (the health club) may also happen to produce the life changes called for by the mission (healthy minds in healthy bodies), but succeeding with both primary and secondary customers is rarely easy. Nonetheless, we have to do it.
Who, then, are a congregation’s primary customers? The member families, certainly—their lives have been transformed to some degree by their exposure to sacred traditions, inspiring examples, and spiritual practices, and the work is never done. As they move from one life stage to another and encounter new temptations, losses, and epiphanies, members learn how to be faithful in new circumstances. Members are primary customers to the extent that the mission calls for their lives to be transformed through the congregation’s work.
But if all goes well, only a minority of primary customers are current members. Some never will be. The beneficiaries of social outreach programs and activities—for instance, people fed at a soup kitchen—have their lives changed, if only for a day, though they may not register that the hand holding the ladle had anything to do with a community of faith. When a synagogue publicly denounces hate crimes against Muslims, it makes life better for people low on the Membership Committee’s prospect list.
Our mission is to transform the lives of our primary customers, but our revenue comes from our secondary customers. This is as true for congregations as for art museums, clinics, colleges, and the Wikipedia Foundation. How can we formulate two development plans and be one institution?
One way is to appeal to secondary customers as if they were primary. We do this when we ask people to compare their gifts to what they spend on Starbucks coffee, private school tuition, or summer vacation. We do it when we enthuse about how beautiful and comfortable and splendid our new building will be for us. We do it when we call part of a member’s contribution “dues” or “fees for service.” This plan, used also by the Y that built a health club, does not require donors to understand that the congregation has a purpose beyond serving them.
This plan is popular because it works. So long as leaders do not confuse cultivating donors with fulfilling charitable purposes, it is a necessary part of any gift development strategy.
Another way to bridge the gap is to transform primary customers into secondary ones—which we do when we teach stewardship to members, who eventually understand that the congregation does not exist for them alone but has a precious gift to give to others through their gifts of time and treasure.
Members are both primary and secondary customers. They legitimately expect the congregation to serve them; at the same time, they know—or need to learn—that the mission is to transform the lives of people who have yet to cross the threshold.
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