7 Disciplines of Highly Successful Charities

Nonprofit 1How to build the trust that fuels program growth

By Jim Jewell

In the last year, some two thirds of Americans responded to appeals from charities for support of projects to meet human needs, create new initiatives, advance faith, and reverse wrongs. Nonprofit organizations received $298 billion in donations and were supported by about 64.5 million volunteers.

Unfortunately, the support is fleeting. For every 100 new donors, American nonprofits lost 107. A new report concluded that for every $100 charities raised last year, $100 was lost as donors stopped giving or donated less. Even as the economy flickered to life and giving increased slightly, donor attrition has stagnated charitable progress.

The reasons are clear:  Although people are moved to give to specific needs, impulse giving is thin commitment. The long-term loyalty of donors, volunteers and other partners is based on the trust of organizations and their people, the evidence of real change and impact, and the relationships that are developed as part of or after the donor transaction.

The building of trust and loyalty is grounded not in a schedule of follow-up letters or emails, but in the DNA of organizational structure, values, and promises. When organizations build trust and loyalty, it is an accelerant for growth and stronger program impact.

We’ve observed seven disciplines in the organizations that are successful in retaining their friends and partners:

Foundational Clarity

Successful charities establish and over-communicate a buoyant yet clear and reasonable vision, as well as core values that guide decisions and actions.  While most organizations at least ‘tip their hat’ at vision and values, and the missions that emit from these (all have become management buzz words in recent years), the successful organizations devote time to developing these directional and differentiating foundations and do not allow their leaders or communicators to marginalize the process or ignore the result.

We love the simplicity and clarity of the Charity Water vision/mission:  “bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.”  Of course many organizations deal with far more complexity than Charity Water, but if they get too far away from this simplicity, they may be doing too many different things.

We also like the improvement that a small charity that is known mostly in the evangelical community, CBMC, has made in bringing clarity to its vision, mission, and values (and featuring these at the top of the Website home page). The organization has struggled to decide what CBMC stands for, but have settled on Christian Business Men’s Connection, explaining in a prominent spot the men-only designation:  “Think for a moment about how your wife would react to news that you were meeting regularly with another woman to help her grow in her Christian faith.”

Rational Promises

Successful nonprofit leaders and soft hearted and hard headed.  Promises they make to themselves and to potential donors, partners and recipients are only those that are rationally defendable.  This may seem obvious, but it is a clear delineation between the successful charities and those that flame out quickly.

A leading reason for failure, particularly for small organizations and startups, is that entrepreneurial and earnest founders and leaders are lying to themselves. Not purposely, of course.  Their passion and drive simply overwhelm their common sense.  They have little or no idea whether assets will be available to them beyond an initial gift or a successful fundraising event.  Sometimes there is an enduring base of support; often there is not. Because passion does not necessarily translate into support, it cannot be the basis of promises.

There are many strong organizations that have counted the cost for many years. One example: we’ve worked extensively with Awana Clubs International, which has grown steadily and very carefully over 60 years, negotiating the challenges of national and international growth, dealing with many church denominational groups and theological traditions, and building revenue by franchising programs, selling products, and asking for donations.

Extraordinary Accountability

When it comes to accountability and reporting on results, there is plenty of room for improvement across the board.  We have found that nonprofits don’t have a lot of information available on the impact of their work, and do relatively little reporting on its extent, expansion, and in-program effectiveness. Much more money and energy is put into developing the contents and plan for future fund appeals than on presenting results in thorough and compelling ways.

Some of the most successful charities, such as World Vision, are able to be more complete in reporting to donors because their primary funding mechanism, child sponsorship, requires personal reporting.  Other groups are making an extra effort for thorough reporting to be a central practice. One example: a charity called DonorsChoose that lets donors pay for education supplies and other needs listed by schoolteachers on a Website.  In exchange for contributions to a teacher of their choice, donors are promised a statement from the teacher describing the difference made by the gift, thank-you letters from students, and photographs of students putting a donor’s money to work.

Regardless of the parameters of the program or the funding methodology, the best charities spend more to report extravagantly on the differences donors and volunteers are making through their contributions, time, and talent. What better way is there to earn trust and loyalty?

Declared Value

The best known, thriving charities search relentlessly for the values, programs, and characteristics that give them unique value–what in the consumer sector is called a value proposition.  It is this statement of unique value that explains how these organizations make a difference; it satisfies their constituencies of supporters and partners. In addition, the organization’s value has to be declared at times and in ways that will enhance and broadly communicate the unique characteristics of the organization.  Compassion International works hard at this, taking every opportunity to establish the differentiating characteristics that set it apart from its relief and development competitors. 

Powerful Vehicles

Great communications plans are evident at every point of public contact.  But they do not start there.  They start in the conference rooms and retreat centers, where teams of leaders gather and hammer out the bedrock of organizational value, and where the central messages of the charity are determined.  They continue in the research and planning that produces sound direction, and in the creative hot houses that germinate compelling creative.  What follows is truthful, compelling, flexible, and current communications that tell stories and capture the drama of human progress and struggle.

And today, ascendant nonprofits are those that recognize every vehicle—old, new and next—must be utilized to reach major groups, but all communications strategies must have the online component as the hub of the wheel. One example is Invisible Children which, since 2004, has made a habit of using media in new ways—dramatic documentary films in colleges, the Web phenomenon Kony 2012—to focus the world’s attention on the atrocities of the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda.

Personal Touch

The huge charitable dependence on mass, direct-response fundraising has limited personal touch. The organizations that survive and grow through national crises and economic recession complement their direct response efforts with programs that include small events and meetings, local celebrations, and other efforts to increase personal communication.  Charities can raise a lot of money for their work as a result of strong professional fundraising campaigns, but they won’t be great, deeply rooted organizations without the personal touch and relationships that require leaders and representatives to climb out of the ivory towers of charity and into the halls and living rooms and coffee shops, churches, and banquet halls of American cities and towns.  One example of this: Although it is one of the largest charitable organizations in the world, The Salvation Army puts itself in a position to make personal contacts and raise its visibility as it raises funds, notably through its Christmas kettles and its thrift stores.

 Meaningful Measurement

The final step for great trust-builders is actually a continuous process: the constant research, evaluation and measurement that precedes, interweaves, and follows every major move. Metrics are essential to track the perceived value of programs and communications, donor retention, public opinion, and relevant societal and industry trends.

Certainly many organizations are now routinely testing channels, audiences, vehicles, methods, and return on every investment. We are particularly impressed with Charity Water (again) because of their decision and effort to measure and report on their adherence to one of their core values or operating principles: that they will raise private and foundation monies for all overhead so that 100 percent of public donations go to programs to provide clean water.

 Successful charities have proven that it is attention to these 7 disciplines that will most reliably build the trust and loyalty that fuels program growth and organizational effectiveness.

Posted in Communications, Compassion Ministries, International aid, Jim Jewell, Nonprofit organizations, PR secrets, Public relations, Values | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Vision Problems: 6 causes of World Vision’s PR debacle

World Vision, the giant international Christian relief and development organization, made two announcements last week. I was shocked and disappointed by both. The nature of my alarm was somewhat different than what I’m reading among my friends who share my evangelical Christian faith, and among others who have reacted to the announcements.

World Vision announced on March 24 through an exclusive interview with Christianity Today that it had amended its personnel policy to allow the hiring of gay Christians who were in legal same sex marriages. They did this, World Vision president Richard Stearns said, not to establish a theological position on homosexuality or same sex marriage, but to be reflective of some Christian denominations that had shifted to more permissive positions on homosexuality.

Two days later, through the same publication, Stearns announced that the organization had totally reversed its decision after virulent backlash from evangelical leaders.

I headed World Vision U.S.’s public relations department for nearly five years, leaving in 1983, and have been a management and public relations consultant for 36 years, primarily in the evangelical sector. I haven’t provided public relations counsel to World Vision for three decades, but from my perspective as a WV alumnus and a PR practitioner, I see World Vision’s handling of this self-made crisis as a public relations debacle of stunning proportions.

This has nothing to do with my own view on the interface of Christian teaching and sexual orientation and practice. There is plenty to say about this, but I am not most qualified to present the varied theological positions. I have worked through enough public relations crises, however, to have an opinion on potential causes for this mishandling of very public statements by a strong and important organization. I see at least six:

  1. Detached Retina. World Vision totally lost view of its core mission and the potential of endangering the aid it provides for millions of people around the world, when it decided to publicize its personnel policy change. There was no reason for a public announcement of a change in its hiring practice or to clarify its position on the accepted conduct of its employees. It did so, it appears, to establish a leadership position among Christian organizations on an issue not central to its mission around the world. Whether you support its (short lived) decision to hire gay Christians or its reversal, World Vision was—Don Quixote like—tilting at windmills where it should not have been.


  1. Presbyopia. With age, many of us lose our ability to see things close up. Called presbyopia, it’s a good word for WV’s vision problem–not seeing those closest to it, the core of evangelical Christians that have and still do constitute an overwhelming portion of its support. It is nearly unbelievable that Stearns and WV leaders were surprised by the storm of protest to its first decision by Christian leaders and the thousands of child sponsors that revoked support within 48 hours. There clearly were not adequate discussions or research with the customer base. Stearns admitted this when he announced the reversal: “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.” But by hearing from supporters and leaders only after the first decision, it left World Vision looking not like a wise industry leader that consults its constituents before making important decisions, but as a weak leadership team that caved when criticized.


  1. Double Vision: World Vision wisely does not take sides on theological issues such as baptism, charismatic expression, divorce and remarriage, or eschatology, which it leaves to the churches. But World Vision is and is known as an evangelical institution and part of the universal Church. As such it draws lines, which it was clear about in its statements this week, requiring that employees be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. It was unfocused thinking to put an issue of stunning social importance in the lap of the church while taking a position that was contrary to a very high percentage of the very churches whose members support the organization. Additionally, Christian institutions (not just churches) must define truth not by keeping everyone happy, but through biblical study, revelation, and conviction.


  1. Mistaken Identity: In making its case for a personnel policy change, World Vision said it allowed the organization “to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage”—giving state-legalized same-sex marriage the same standing as the marriage of man and a woman. To identify moral clarity through appeal to state law is a perilous move, one that—of course—held little sway with those who believe homosexual conduct is contrary to scripture and legal sanction of same-sex marriage an abomination. The decision appeared to be cleared by legal counsel but not Christian counsel.


  1. Distorted Selfie. What is the distinct character of a Christian organization? It’s defined by beliefs, mission, and shared Christian values. Trust is broken when an organization violates these values that it shares with its recipients, its customers/donors, its partners, and its own history. It will take years for World Vision to rebuild that trust.


  1. Myopia. While I do not know World Vision’s current leaders well enough to discern how much they have been influenced by the political and social environment in Seattle and the state of Washington, the blind spot demonstrated this week suggests there has been an impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the first decision. I’m afraid World Vision could not see beyond the Cascades, their eyes focused—if even unintentionally–on local preferences, politics, and the social environment in their home state, and not seeing national and international positions in the evangelical community that came surging into their view when they publicized their short-lived new personnel policy.

The sad part of such public relations mishandling is that an organization emerges with its reputation severely damaged. In this case, those in the heart and the right of the evangelical community have been given ammunition to doubt the orthodoxy of World Vision and its leaders. The bleeding was stopped but the scar will be unsightly for some time. Then with a reversal, those who support a stronger embrace of homosexuals by the church felt betrayed by a World Vision that – it appears to them—capitulated under the strong arm of fundamentalism.

I think of the president of World Vision when I was part of the team, esteemed evangelical leader Ted W. Engstrom, who passed away a couple of years ago. I can see TWE writing memos in heaven on the dangers of compromise, but also on the mismanagement of the public trust.

May World Vision draw from his wisdom and example of clear leadership.

Jim Jewell





Posted in Christianity, Church and State, Communications, Culture, Ethics, Evangelicals, Homosexual Issues, International aid, Jim Jewell, Leaders, Nonprofit organizations, Public relations | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Choosing Gelato, and the Value of Values

In a simple visit to a gelato shop this weekend, I—knowingly or unknowingly—made valuegelato statements about risk taking, friendship, childhood joy, keeping promises, and childhood diligence. While we all can recognize that the overtly important choices of life are based on values, the everyday choices of life are also informed by our priorities and values. We know what we value because we spend our money, our energy, and our time on these things.

The same is true in business, including the sector that consumes a good deal of my attention: nonprofit business.  Read more about choosing gelato and the value of values.  

Posted in Compassion Ministries, International aid, Jim Jewell, Nonprofit organizations, Values | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Your young men shall see visions”: the importance of nonprofit vision

Vision“If there is no vision,” a 1599 version of Proverbs 29:18 reads, “the people decay.” Without a vision, missions can stagnate or waste away. A vision is an answer to the question: “What can and should we accomplish?”

My post on the NPOutlook blog looks at the importance of a vision statement to guide and energize actions from the present forward.  We’ve looked at many organizational vision statements.  Some are great; many are terrible.  Take a look; for now, we’ll let you decide.

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Trust Me

Trust has been in decline for many years.  I wrote about the decline in public trust trustin 2010, and just now on the NPOutlook Blog.  With charities trying to recover–like so many others–from the economic carnage of the last five years, regaining donor trust has never been more important.  In a corporate setting, it gets tricky:

 To many leaders, trust sounds like soft and cuddly business jargon. Treated seriously, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Trust is not a soft virtue. Gaining and keeping trust is tough, gritty, engaged, in-your-face work. Listening hard. Making difficult choices. Fortitude, sacrifice, sweat and tears are often required to make and to deliver on promises and to be unfailingly truthful.

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7 reasons nonprofit organizations falter and fail

Why do some charities thrive and others struggle and fail.  I’ve been heavily involved in organizations that have done both, and I have some ideas about why even the best intentioned leaders often see their nonprofits decline into virtual irrelevance.  In a post on the NPOutlook Blog I’ve explored 7 reasons for nonprofit failure:Nonprofit 3

1. Empty Optimism

2. Values Vacuum

3. Competitive Blinders

4. Iced Innovation

5. Mission Creep

6. Lone Ranger

7. Data Dearth

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7 disciplines of highly effective charities

I have spent all of my career working for or with nonprofit organizations, primarily Christian groups. I’ve made a recent job move, to work with a management consultancy called The Valcort Grop, which specializes in diagnosing organizational health and providing solutions that lead to growth and impact.  I’m directing the nonprofit practice, which is a nice continuation of my life work.  TVG-Logo

I’ve been analyzing the current state of American charities, which have of course been struggling as a result of the economic hole we’ve all been in.  Unfortunately, many of them aren’t poised to bounce back as the economy flickers to life.  I’ve outlined 7 disciplines that we can see in successful charities, here.  

The article begins:

In the last year, some two thirds of Americans responded to appeals from charities for support of projects to meet human needs, create new initiatives, advance faith, and reverse wrongs. Nonprofit organizations received $298 billion in donations and were supported by about 64.5 million volunteers.

Unfortunately, the support is fleeting. For every 100 new donors, American nonprofits lost 107. A new report concluded that for every $100 charities raised last year, $100 was lost as donors stopped giving or donated less. Even as the economy flickered to life and giving increased slightly, donor attrition has stagnated charitable progress.

The reasons are clear: Although people are moved to give to specific needs, impulse giving is thin commitment. The long-term loyalty of donors, volunteers and other partners is based on the trust of organizations and their people, the evidence of real change and impact, and the relationships that are developed as part of or after the donor transaction.

Posted in Ethics, Jim Jewell, Nonprofit organizations, Values | Leave a comment

“When you fast”: Reflections on a Daniel Fast

fruits and vegetablesFor many Christians, the call to fasting and prayer is a discipline for someone else in the faith. Especially the fasting part.  It certainly was for me.  I don’t recall any spiritual fasts during most of my life, nor do I remember a specific, direct call to fasting from the pulpit in the evangelical churches that I attended.

Now, my wife and I have found that God tends to speak into our lives during times of fasting and prayer, and we try to make it a regular discipline. Now we are not world-class fasters.  We haven’t done a 40-day fast. We haven’t done the serious 25-hour no-consumption-of-anything (not even water)  fast like observant Jews do on Yom Kippur and other times. We aren’t as regular in our fasting as we’d like to be, and we haven’t done a great job sustaining a weekly fast, although we’re trying once again to make it a new habit.

I’m reflecting on fasting not because I am a model, but because I want to highly recommend a discipline of fasting and praying as a way to force a measure of self-denial and to seek greater intimacy with God.  As Kevin Queen preached at 12 Stone Church 10/28/12 in a message titled When I’m Stuck: “I give up something I want (unlimited access to foods I like) for something I want more (intimacy with God).”

In recent years we have done three Daniel Fasts, two 10-day fasts and one 21-day fast. See my earlier post on one of those fasts. The Daniel Fast is not a starvation fast. Although it depends on your level of consumption of the foods you can eat, you will likely go through the fast without great hunger.  The Daniel Fast is about purposely depriving yourself of certain food groups.

If you are not familiar with the Daniel Fast, it approximates the diet of Daniel and his Jewish compatriots when they were brought to the royal court in Babylon (Daniel 1:12 and Daniel 10:2).  They were granted permission to eat a limited diet of foods:  fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  Notably, they did not eat the meats, sweets, and alcohol from the King’s table. 

There are different modern versions of the Daniel Fast. Here’s a good Daniel Fast website and a book.

In our Daniel Fasts, in addition to eliminating any sweets, we drink only water, which cuts out coffee and effectively derails the route to any caffeine. We’re also diligent in cutting out any chemicals and preservatives, something we’re doing more and more of in our day-to-day lives.  (Although this is somewhat like a typical vegan diet, the elimination of sweets and caffeine makes it very different).

For me, coffee deprivation is the highest price of our Daniel Fast.  For my wife Debbie, the biggest price is chocolate deprivation.

Why fast?  In addition to the opportunity to refocus your relationship with God, there is the instruction from Jesus, when he said when you fast… (not if.)

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And this is Christmas


We relish the soft, airbrushed edges of our Christmases that blend the Middle Eastern night of magi and shepherds overseeing the birth of Jesus in peaceful Bethlehem with Currier & Ives snowscapes, carolers and family festivities.

Certainly the shattering of these pastoral Christmas scenes couldn’t be any more brutal than this year, with the national grieving of the massacre of children who were still navigating the move from nap time to school time. While there are frequently holiday stories that cut against the cultural and spiritual flow of the season, it is difficult to recall the reality of evil interrupting so abruptly the merriment and winter joy of Christmastime. 

For 26 families, the interruption of Christmas is, of course, secondary to the destruction of life as they have known it. We can only pray that the reality of a living Christ will be solace to the Christian families, and that God will use the new year to renew the hopes of all. 

 There is much sadness in our world at any time of the year, and it is sharpened for those who are struggling with pain and suffering, with emptiness and loss, at Christmas. There are many more families grieving the loss of children, taken abruptly in the streets of Chicago or Detroit, or slowly in the pediatric wings of hospitals everywhere. There is seemingly endless unemployment and underemployment and the sickening grind of dwindling resources and diminishing dreams. There is the loss of love and the loss of ambition.

And if there is no joy in your personal world it is hard to appreciate choirs who are insisting that there is. 

For those of us who have the luxury of contemplating the plan of God in a time of obscene senselessness, rather than the stark barrenness of a child gone, we can look at the truth of the Christmas story instead of the stained glass images of our modern Christmas traditions for a better perspective. 

This was perhaps best captured by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Christian, who wrote two days after the Newtown massacre:

The only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.

The reality of the incarnation, the embodiment of God, in the very midst of brutality and violence, from the murdering of innocents in search of the Christ-child in Bethlehem to a crucifixion at a Jerusalem crossroads, sets the Kingdom of God squarely in the grisly realities of every age rather than the in the star lit glow of advent celebration.

And that is a truth that should not dampen the great celebration of O Holy Night, or even the secular enjoyment of winter fun and holiday gift exchange, but rather put all of it in divine perspective. The world of sadistic evil intertwined with breathtaking goodness is the world as we know it and has always been known.

As such, for it to be true that God is with us–the promise of Christmas–it must also be true that He is with us on days when evil prevails, as well as on days of joy and promise. He brings Relevance and Redemption to every space and time, and He has ever since His family fled the murderous designs of a jealous despot and became refugees in Egypt.

The good news is that it is the Desire of God that we have an infusion of joy that finds the depth of the greatest suffering.   

Joy to the World, the Lord is come.  Life triumphs over death.  Good triumphs over evil. It’s hard to see it from here.  And it was as hard to see it in Bethlehem when Jesus was born as it is today.  It is the real world God decided to save. This is Christmas.

–Jim Jewell


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Very funny (and truthy) 2012 editorial cartoons on politics, religion, life



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