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Phil-CookeBack in the 1950s and through the 1980s, there were some massive evangelistic and social-service ministries created that did amazing work around the world (and some still are). From Campus Crusade, the Jesus Film Project, Feed the Children, the Navigators, The Gideons—plus big evangelistic organizations like Oral Roberts, Billy Graham and many more—these ministry and nonprofit organizations had a global impact and raised hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort.

But today some of the large legacy ministries are struggling. After seeing many of these organizations from the inside, and from my experience engaging today’s culture, here’s five things these organizations need to do to transition and stay relevant to the next generation:

1. Realize the world is changing and so should you. That doesn’t mean you compromise your message or mission, but what worked in the 1970s probably isn’t going to work now. The donor development campaign that brought in so much financial support in 1986 isn’t going to be as effective today. Get over it and move on. Robert Schuller founded his ministry on the revolutionary idea of a “drive-in church.” He was radically creative and original. But once the ministry grew, they stopped innovating. Was it fear? Who knows? But there is never a time to stop innovating and listening to the culture.

2. Different generations communicate in different ways. The group that built most of these ministries responded to direct mail. I respond to email. My kids respond to texting or online giving. That doesn’t mean you drop direct mail, because the older generation still likes that method. It’s not about how you want to communicate to them; it’s how they want to communicate to you. A smart ministry or nonprofit will always communicate its message through multiple pathways to reach every potential donor.

3. Stop thinking your older donors are old-fashioned and traditional. I can’t even begin to describe how much ministries and nonprofits buy into the myth that contemporary styles and communication methods turn off older donors. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fastest-growing market for mobile devices is senior citizens, but you never see an iPhone commercial featuring an old guy on his walker talking on his iPhone. Old people want to be cool too. Just take the time to sell the re-brand. Embrace your older donors, and make them part of the change. After all, they want to reach their kids and grandkids and understand what it takes to make that happen.

4. Focus on your strengths. Back in the day, many of these huge organizations had the budgets to do everything. They did Bible translations, live evangelistic events, Christian education, media production, medical outreaches and food distribution, and they dug water wells, built Bible schools and much more. But today, it’s time to focus on your strengths. Have the courage to cut away the weak areas so you can strengthen what you’re best at providing. This is a “niche” world, so it’s far better to be amazing at one big thing than just average at many things. Everyone wants to see results, so focus your guns on a smaller target.

5. Tell your story more effectively. We live in a media-driven culture, and without video, social media and a compelling web presence, you don’t exist to most people. Here’s some tips to start:

  • Video is about emotion, not statistics or information. Stop boring your audiences with how many wonderful things you’ve done, and start telling compelling stories about lives that have been changed because of your work.
  • Social media is just that—social. Twitter and Facebook aren’t megaphones where you blast announcements. Social media is a conversation with your followers, supporters and donors. Engage and respond; don’t shout.
  • Yesterday it was about telling your story in a handful of ways—books, direct mail or broadcast TV. Today it’s about telling your story on multiple platforms. People won’t come to you, so you have to go to them. Get your story out there, and be original and compelling. And while you’re at it, share that message in a language and style today’s culture understands.

There’s plenty of life left in most of these legacy organizations because they were founded to accomplish great things. If you have further questions, I’d encourage you to get my book Unique: Telling Your Story in the Age of Brands and Social Media. If you’d like to chat, our team at Cooke Pictures is happy to help. Just let us know.

Phil Cooke is a media consultant focused mainly on the Christian market, as well as a vocal critic of contemporary American and American-influenced Christian culture.

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