Bob Allen’s Why Do People Leave Churches? post on the Associated Baptist Press blog (thanks to Call & Response for the tip) is as applicable to secular charities as it is churches and religious nonprofits, as it deals with the ubiquitously toothache-y subject of lapsed and inactive constituents.
From Allen’s article:
“Churches have gone to great extreme effort to get people in the front door of the church,” Brad Waggoner of LifeWay Christian Resources said in a 2006 podcast. “There’s been some success numerically in that strategy, but very few people are talking about the back door of the church. That is: ‘Where do the people go that slip out of the life of the church?’
“The back door is just as important as the front door in determining the health of a local church.”
Allen quotes church consultant George Bullard, who contends that four things are necessary in the first year of a new attendee’s experience in order to minimize the likelihood of lapsing: Push guests toward regular attendance; make sure they develop deep friendships within the congregation; get them in a small group; and find a volunteer opportunity where they can plug in.
Not a bad idea in the bunch. And yet…
Conspicuously absent from our discussions (both Christian and secular) of lapsed and inactive donors and members is the reality that most “lost sheep” don’t wander out the back door.
They wander back out the front door. The door they came in.
That is, donors and members “lapse” because they weren’t intending to be donors or members in the first place.
In the case of a nonprofit, for example, a “prospect” receives a direct mail acquisition package. She has no intention of being “acquired” into the nonprofit’s donor file. She was making a single gift, not an ongoing commitment. Only the nonprofit sees the person as a lapsed donor. The person sees herself as someone who did a nice thing and who keeps getting harassed by the charity for more money.
Same with the person who wanders in the door of a church at Christmas because they want to see face melting lasers and indoor snow while eating Christmas treats. They don’t think of their departure in terms of a lack of deep congregational friendships, small group participation, or volunteer opportunities. They just came to see the face melting lasers, man.
Regrettably, minimizing lapsing is usually construed as an assimilation/cultivation task, yet it should primarily be viewed as a recruitment task. That is, if our recruitment efforts align with our assimilation/cultivation efforts, our lapsed/inactive rates will plummet as a matter of course.
Translation: Time to stop building our donor files with wine tastings and auctions and our churches with face melting lasers. Time to start recruiting champions into causes.
Lest we fear that actually asking people to understand and do difficult things might tank our recruitment efforts, check out Katya Andresen’s post entitled Do People Give More If It’s Painful? (Short answer: Yes.)
Tripp York, author of The Purple Crown: The Politics of Martyrdom, reminds us that the use of face melting lasers to recruit new converts is a relatively recent development; in the early church, people actually joined the church knowing that it would likely lead to their death:
To become a Christian under the Roman Empire, at least in the first three hundred years of Christianity, entailed possible loss of goods, exile, and very often death. Christianity, therefore, was not entered into lightly. To become a Christian meant that one had to prepare for the possibility of a premature death.
Jesus’ own lapse prevention strategy went like this:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30)