At The A Group, we work with many "legacy organizations" - ministries and nonprofits that are large, well-known, and have 25, 50, 75 years of ministry under their belts. Often, these organizations come to us when their programs and support base is declining, and they're not sure why. These are the organizations that everyone knows. The ones with global presence, with a prominent founder, with years of success. They have such a strong history, and now find themselves asking what is happening.

Over and over, we see the same pattern among these organizations trying to engage in today's culture. Though each organization thinks they are alone, in reality, most nonprofits and ministries experiencing decline share a few key characteristics:

  • Their donors are leaving, or are getting older, without the next generation coming in to close the gap.
  • They were built around a charismatic figure, and as their founder ages out or passes away, the organization and support base suffers.
  • The general perception is that they are outdated, old school or legalistic.
  • They have a long-term dedicated staff, but lack outside perspective to keep them relevant and efficient.
  • They're communicating in all the wrong spaces, sending direct mail pieces to donors who now prefer to give via text message, for example.

These organizations all seem to have gotten stuck, frozen at a point in time, and at the root is one main cause: they confuse methods with mission. As time goes on, organizational leaders and supporters cling to the way things were done rather than the vision behind them. They focus on the evangelical tool over evangelism, rules over reason, program over purpose. Process becomes doctrine, and they marry and message the "how"  instead of the "why" until it becomes their identity. It's not intentional and it happens slowly over time, but like Rip Van Winkle, they wake up to realize the culture has changed and they're still the same.

The good news it that it's not too late for these organizations. Typically, the mission is as alive as ever. People are coming to Christ. Poverty is being fought. Loyal leaders and employees are willing to give their life for a cause. It's not a heart problem; it's a communications problem. With an evaluation of processes and structure, an updated brand, and a renewed communications and donor development plan, legacy organizations can become as - if not more - relevant and effective as trending, budding ministries.

The transition isn't always easy -- often, staff and key donors are equally invested in the methods, and it takes careful strategic planning and communications to avoid alienating these groups. Sometimes there is a reputation or perception to fight. But the organizations that turn this around have potential to be some of the most effective for the Kingdom. They have history and trust, they have a donor base, they have stories of impact, and the wisdom of experience. When they build on this foundation, they can reach across generations and cultures and change lives.

Know it's time to make a change but not sure where to begin? Check out Part 2 of Mission Vs. Method next Thursday for our six steps for getting started.

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