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Life transformation ministries must change to meet today’s donors

I wrote recently about how life transformation ministries across the country are transforming their identities and their brands. Today, I’d like to take that one step further and discuss how organizations can take these new identities and build better relationships with their donors.

As we start a new year, it’s always a good time to reflect back to see where the road has taken us and to look at the path in front of us to see what’s ahead. First, a quick recap of my previous post.

The evolution of rescue missions

So many organizations have expanded into so many new areas that they’ve become much more than homeless shelters today. They’ve grown both the volume and the complexity of the work they do.

In order to reflect this change, the Citygate Network started referring to rescue missions as “life transformation ministries” about a year ago. It’s a fitting change for the many programs and services that truly transform people’s lives.

What exactly has changed? For starters, the traditional view of homelessness and poverty is outdated. These ministries no longer serve only men; they now help a diverse community, with the fastest growing need being to help women and children. Many organizations also offer rehabilitation services to help those struggling with addiction and recovery.

Milwaukee Rescue Mission’s Cross Trainers Academy is a terrific example of this modernization. The school has nearly 400 students with a 20:1 student-staff ratio, and they offer pre-kindergarten through 12th grade classes.


How these changes impact brand identity

One thing that hasn't changed is the power of the Gospel to change lives. This sits at the core of everything that life transformation ministries do.

But when your identity is more than your name implies, it may be time for a change. And that’s what we’ve seen across the mission landscape.

Organizations are updating their brands—some even removing “mission” from their names. Many sub-brands are also emerging. Atlanta Mission’s “My Sister’s House” is a beautiful example as an overnight shelter for women and children. If asked where they’re staying, people can simply say, “My Sister’s House.”

You may be thinking about whether your organization needs to rebrand, or maybe you just need to reposition how you’re communicating with your constituents and donors.

I recommend starting with the basics. Consider conducting market research to learn what people think of you. Don't assume people know who you are and what you do. Tell them on your website, in your social media posts, in your emails, etc. Remember to start at the beginning.

Los Angeles Mission does a great job of defining their brand. Their website home page shows who they are and what they do. They identify their mission, share stats on how they've helped, and tell stories about their services and programs.


Build better relationships with donors

I often say that an annual plan just gets you annual results.

Once you’ve defined who you are, you need to be intentional about building better relationships with your donors in order to grow. This starts with a long-term vision.

Determine where you want to be three or five years from now. Then, build a multiyear, strategic plan that aligns your fundraising goals with those aspirations.

The loss of events and in-person canvassing during the pandemic has shown us exactly why we always need to be forward-thinking and planning ahead for long-term stability. The pandemic has also shown the importance of looking ahead to new ideas and new technologies.

How does this translate into better relationships with today’s donors? It starts by acknowledging that fundraising is also changing right in front of us. You should be using data to drive all your decisions, including the smartest places to invest your donors’ generous gifts.

With the right data, you can be relevant to the donor in all your communications. Jump into the conversation when and where it makes sense.

And speaking of communications, the old one-size-fits-all approach no longer works today. People want to feel special. Donors want to feel like you know them. They don’t want to feel like they’re just another transaction.

You need a customized strategy (driven by data) that meets donors where they are. You should share your brand and your stories across channels—mail, phone, email, social, text, etc. The message and the experience need to be consistent in every touchpoint.

Prepare for the future by adopting a digital-first mindset. This doesn’t mean you abandon direct mail or telemarketing, but it means leaning into the following benefits of digital channels:

  • Using personalization, automation and segmentation to deepen the donor relationship
  • Finding new audiences in new channels to connect with younger donors
  • Preparing to adapt and move quickly when you want to try something new or when emergencies happen

Some missions are raising more on digital than print. When will that happen for you? If you’re not sure where you stand, take our digital maturity quiz for a quick self-assessment.

You should also be building a strong mid-major program to connect with high-value donors. These exceptional donors want to know more about your organization, your mission and your work. This requires a more personal and intimate approach than a mass donor program can offer.

My colleague, Karla Baldelli, has written a great post about how we should be making mid-level donors feel like superheroes. We’ve also developed a great guide to structuring a mid-level program. I suggest checking it out here.

In Conclusion

As you contemplate your future and what you’d like to change, it can be difficult to figure out where to begin. Here are some simple steps:

  1. Start with a market research study to measure your brand and how people see your organization.
  2. Define your horizon point. Go beyond your annual plan to think about your long-term future.
  3. Be intentional about change—starting internally. Once you’ve solidified internal change, then you will be consistent externally.
  4. Diversify your fundraising by trying new tactics and testing new ideas. You can’t do same thing and expect different results.

Glenn McKinney

As Senior Vice President at RKD Group, Glenn McKinney works with faith-based organizations like rescue missions and life-transformation ministries to provide innovative mail, online, phone, research, major gifts and planned giving strategies for clients. A strong champion of RKD’s donor-centric philosophy, Glenn and his team consistently exceed clients’ fundraising goals.

Glenn has 23 years of experience in the mission space. He spent eight years working for two missions in New York -- New York City Rescue Mission and The Bowery Mission -- before moving to the agency side for the last 15 years.

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