Ministries Should Think Like Entrepreneurs

At Keenly Interactive, my job is to work with ministries. Big and small, local and international, building churches or educating children in Africa, I have the honor of working with such a variety of kingdom-changing groups. The past few years as I’ve been able to look behind the curtain of these different ministries, I’ve noticed a strange similarity. Many ministries don’t think enough like an entrepreneur.

Thinking like an entrepreneur means you use strategic thinking and innovative practices to solve problems that seem impossible. For many ministries, they feel they don’t have permission to think this way. Would you agree? Many ministries are bound by tradition or a “what has always been done” mindset. To move away from that way of thinking feels like we are breaking an unspoken rule.

Friends, it’s OK to not think like your ministry has always thought. In fact, the more strategic thinking and innovating processes you can incorporate into your ministry, the greater impact you’ll have. Want to get started? Here are three ways you can start thinking like an entrepreneur within your organization.

Stop borrowing ideas

Most ministries operate by going to a conference, reading someone’s book, or observing another ministry they like. They find the elements that resonate and bring them over to their ministry. Essentially what they are doing is borrowing someone else’s approach, ideas, feel of their marketing, and programs.

Let’s say a church is planted and a pastor steps in, very excited but not sure of next steps. He goes to a large conference or a larger church in the area with his observer hat on, and thinks “This is what they do from the stage with music, announcements, preaching, and small groups. I love it”. He then takes it back to his church and repeats it. Friend, If you went to a conference at a large church in California and your church is in Oklahoma, it won’t fit. Your church has a different environment, resources, and vision.

With “borrowed ideas”, things are not born out of change, decision, and experience. It’s born out of what a different ministry experienced. The uniqueness of your organization is so important and tied to the transformation you are trying to get. Let’s go back to how ministries used to work and focus on being innovative in our programs, marketing, and decisions.

Stop trying to be mediocre

Most ministries and nonprofits set goals that are very easy to obtain. The leadership is afraid to set a vision that is too hard to accomplish. They don’t want to disappoint their donors, staff, and community, so they play it safe. I live in Phoenix and work with many amazing organizations locally. Let’s say a group in Phoenix said they wanted to feed 300 homeless people this year. That sounds great, but if there is 20,000 homeless people in the city, it doesn’t feel very significant. Entrepreneurial thinking is the bridge that gets us to the impossible goal. Listen to any start up, entrepreneur, or CEO talk about starting up their business and you’ll hear a crazy dream they pursued- something that seemed impossible to everyone else in their industry. In the ministry world, why do we setting with mediocre?

Instead of “How can we feed this many people” we need to be asking “How can we think in an innovative way to feed every person in our community”. Entrepreneurial thinking is all about solving what feels like impossible problems. Practical thinking limits our work.

3. Stop chasing your donors.
In the non-profit world, you don’t have a singular target. Your first target is the people you are helping through your ministry, and on the other side you have people who help you to do that work (your donors). As a person in ministry leadership, you are constantly doing a dance between your donor base and a constituent base. With every decision you make, you want to do what is best for those who you are serving, but if a decision puts you at risk of losing a donor, it’s easy to jump into panic mode.
I’ve sat with countless ministries who KNOW a decision is best for the men and women they are serving, but the fear of losing a donor completely shuts it down. When you come up against this tension- I would challenge you to ask this question: “How can we think about where our money comes differently?” Entrepreneurial thinking isn’t limited by one option- you’re always open to new ideas and options.

Take a ministry we have been working with as an example- Authentic Intimacy. With the way they were structured, they were so reliant on donations that fundraising took up 50% of their meetings, priorities, and time. In order to continue to sustain their work, they were spending more and more of their energy trying to recruit more donors instead of actually doing their ministry work. At Keenly Interactive, we asked them a question – “Why do you need donors? How else could you cut your budget or bring in money?” While this question is simple, it goes against how many ministries have thought. Authentic Intimacy has since restructured their ministry, cut their reliance on donors, and learned to bring in money like an entrepreneur.

If you’re doing ministry like everyone is doing ministry, I would encourage you to stop. What would it look like to think strategically, plan differently, and build something that is unique for your work? There are many ministries that function in an old school way, but maybe that isn’t how your ministry should be run. What if you did something that allowed you to thrive just as you are?

Jason Lehman is the CEO of Keenly Interactive, a strategic planning consulting group that partners with ministries all over the world. To learn more about working with Keenly, click here.

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