Notes in the key of E, part III: You know you’re E when you wonder if you messed up the cause by doing P

When it comes to recruiting champions, nonprofits like to jump right to E.

That is, nonprofits love champions who understand the cause and know how to contribute to it.

Face it: it gets a little old after a while to have to start over from zero with each new champion.

(This, by the way, is why the responsibility for recruiting new P’s into your cause rightfully belongs to your O’s and not to you. O’s learn how to O by recruiting new P’s. As for you, your span of focus extends from facilitating the P-E transformation right on through to the O-P step where O’s begin to replicate. But that’s another post for another series. So where were we? Oh yeah.)

It gets a little old after a while to have to start over from zero with each new champion. So we nonprofits, brimming with equal parts hope and impatience, approach potential champions by hitting them right between the eyes with the cause and what our organization is doing to impact it.

That looks like this:

Every four seconds a child dies of starvation. BANG! It just happened again. And what are you doing about it? BANG! Another one down. And what are you doing? Just sitting there watching my lips move. BANG! There goes another one.

In other words, in our attempt to stress the importance and significance of the problem our organization is addressing, we magnify the problem to the point where the average listener can only respond by being overwhelmed, paralyzed into inaction.

That’s the absolutely essential role Participation projects play: they make it possible for potential champions to get their hands around a cause by distilling it in the form of a project that they can understand and do:

  • Child sponsorship takes the crushing weight of global poverty and says, “Here’s little Anna. For $32 a month you can help her go to school and get regular checkups from the doctor.”
  • Prison Fellowship’s Project Angel Tree takes the super scary world of prisons and says, “Here’s little Timmy. His dad is in the pokey. Can you spare a choo-choo train?”
  • Habitat for Humanity takes the frustratingly omnipresent problem of poverty and says, “Here’s a hammer. Let’s go build a house on Elm Street with and for the Johnsons.”

These are unmitigated goods. There is not a single bad thing about them.


Except for when nonprofits conflate the project with the cause, assuring champions that the way to impact the cause even more is by doing more P.

  • Solving the problem of child poverty becomes, “If everyone else would just do their part and sponsor a child like me.”
  • Expanding the Project Angel Tree program at your church becomes the way you fulfill the Biblical mandate toward the prisoner.
  • By helping build a house every year, you feel pretty comfortable that you are part of the solution to poverty in your community and no longer part of the problem.

When these things happen, we run into the Hebrews 5 buzzsaw:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Growing in maturity in relation to the cause, in other words, means coming to a point where we realize that the cause can’t be accomplished simply through more project-level participation.


  • A cluster of churches in a community decide to “do their part” to help the homeless. They each agree to take one night a week to serve dinner and provide overnight accommodations. By serving the meals they meet Josie, a single mom with whom they really fall in love. Josie shares how she needs $400 for a bus ticket home. They take up a collection and give Josie the money, happy they can make a difference. They say goodbye to Josie, but one month later she is back at the church again, talking about how her boyfriend stole the money and she was unable to return home. They suspect she is not being honest, and they are, frankly, getting a little tired of hearing stories like this. Why can’t the homeless people just appreciate what the churches are providing?
  • A family sponsors Zeina, a young girl, through an international relief agency. They enjoy sending her letters and hearing about her progress in school. Then they hear a report on the news about how the rate of starvation in the country where Zeina lives is actually higher than when child sponsorship began. They love Zeina but wonder if they’ve been misled as to the impact of their giving.
  • An American church has a heart for persecuted Christians. They decide to smuggle Bibles into China as part of a nonprofit organization’s program. They are nervous but exhilarated, and when they are successful, they return home feeling that they have done something truly worthwhile and precious. Later they hear that it is actually not hard to smuggle Bibles into China; in fact, authorities are generally inclined to let you do it as long as you don’t bring too many. What they like to do, the American church learns, is to see who you bring the Bibles to, and the recipients of those Bibles are then placed under surveillance. They are sad to think that the people who received the Bibles they smuggled are now secretly being watched by the Chinese secret police.

Are these cases of nonprofit malfeasance to be mourned?

Absolutely not! They are cases of champions moving from P to E–and that is to be celebrated! The only sad part is that the P to E move often happens in spite of nonprofits, not because of them.

In other words, it’s quite honestly great that a cluster of churches wants to take turns providing meals! They should! And through this experience, with the proper coaching, they’ll come to learn firsthand that homelessness is not primarily about a lack of food and shelter but is about broken relationships and burned bridges that individuals don’t know how to repair.

It’s great that a family adopts a child. They should! And through this experience, a coach can help them see that it really does take a village to raise a child–that there are limitations to what western money and international aid can bring to a country, and that child poverty can’t be eradicated even if every child was sponsored.

It’s great that an American church partners with the persecuted church through bringing Bibles. They should! And by being coached through this experience, they can learn that far from being disadvantaged objects of pity, the persecuted church has much to teach the West about faithfulness to Christ’s call.

In each case, Participation provides not only the means to enable a person to get his or her hands around the cause via a do-able project. It also contains the seeds for helping the person understand why projects aren’t enough. They’re a necessary step on the way to maturity in the cause…

…but they’re not the staircase.

The staircase is called Engagement, and its steps are equip, educate, and experience, to which we’ll turn in our next post.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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1 Response to Notes in the key of E, part III: You know you’re E when you wonder if you messed up the cause by doing P

  1. Pingback: A Signature Anti-Participation Project? A Review of “A Day Without Dignity” | Transformational Giving

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