Differentiation or Lowest-cost Provider?

by pmckaughan on May 11, 2011

Steve Moore and I were talking on the phone. We decided that one of the most important organizational issues missions face today is “differentiation.” Differentiation is what makes a mission stand out as unique from all the others. Just as God gives specific unique gifts and callings to individuals, He often does the same to ministries.

From the discipline of marketing, one learns that it is essential that the potential customer, or person you serve, perceives the differences between you and other similar products or service providers. If the customer doesn’t perceive a significant difference between them, that product or service becomes a mere commodity. For the client where there is no differentiation between the various similar commodity brands, the only issue becomes one of price. Being the lowest cost provider in a global world is tough.

To the average man or woman in the pew all missions, with few exceptions, look, smell, and taste the same. We are all doing the same kinds of things. Only when one really becomes a missions insider do distinctives between us even begin to appear. However, what is super-meaningful to insiders may have little value as a differentiator to those outside our organization or ministry.

The big question becomes, “What differentiates you from every other mission which is asking the Church for support?” That answer is not yours to give. It is the supporter or outsider who must see your mission as truly distinctive and something he or she feels called to support.

Missions usually start out with a very specific and unique calling, but over time “ministry creep” sets in. The mission broadens and accumulates more and more perfectly good ministry functions under the banner of its purpose and vision. Differentiation is lost. We often grow into the un-differentiated commodity category to our detriment.

My friend, Doug Birdsall, refers to a very strategic year of growth for the ministry he led. During this particular year they went from an income of $4M to only $2 M. What he was saying in an intriguing, and counter-intuitive manner was that this ministry cut away almost half of their accumulated mission activities in order to really focus on what they were uniquely called of God to do and be. They resolved to be obedient and to do one thing and do it really well. Today they have grown significantly, yet are clearly differentiated from most of the other ministries asking for the support of the Church.

Sometimes to move forward, one must take a rather dramatic step backward. It may be the only way to get back to the unique calling of God for your ministry. Undisciplined growth will always take a ministry into the undifferentiated commodity category.

I was recently with a mission that in its storied history had been clearly differentiated from the rest of us. They were appreciated and respected for their specific calling and expertise. However, over the years public perception changed. They are still seen by the mission community as leaders in their sector of ministry. Yet today there are so many others doing what they pioneered, they are no longer seen by the evangelical public as unique.

These Godly brothers and sisters are going through a painful and disciplined process of discovery before God and the whole community of faith. They are asking how their awesome history can form the foundation for the unique ministry future which God has for them. God’s purpose for them is unique and will differentiate them from the other brothers and sisters with other singular callings.

By the way, differentiation makes collaboration more natural because they will be able to come alongside others who recognize and need their unique contribution. What differentiates you within the community of those who acknowledge Jesus as Lord? Are you content to be a commodity and merely compete to be the lowest-cost provider?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellen Livingood May 17, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Thanks for highlighting the issue of “mission creep.” We in the missions community seem to have taken too seriously the admonition to be “all things to all men”!

On the flip side, as much or more potentially harmful is the explosion of new organizations, each declaring that they offer the unique solution to a heretofore unaddressed problem. Yet these new organizations are often duplicating already existing efforts. Rather than creating yet another new 501(c)3 with all of the accompanying trappings, let’s encourage visionary leaders to look for organizations with the same purpose or if this really is a new type of ministry, consider developing it within an existing organization–in most cases not only a more efficient use of funds, but also of leadership talent and other resources. Yes, it will require that both old and new “wineskins” be open to some compromise for the long-term benefit of Kingdom work.

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Jeff Boesel May 31, 2011 at 4:48 pm

Great point, Paul. For certain we have seen this in our agency. There are a couple of comments I would like to make here in reference to my considerations as a mobilizer of missionaries and this topic.

First, one of the strongest differentiators today for agencies is cost. As Steve mentions in his video blog on the drivers of deep change, churches and people are turning more and more to opportunities that offer what they would say are “apples to apples” situations for much less money. We, in more expensive agencies, have learned by experience that these less expensive opportunities do not usually play out well. How we know? We are the ones who are picking up the pieces in the various countries of ministry! We do this because we are compelled to in the love of Jesus and yet it does not come without increased cost on our resources. Should we become more lean and mean? Of course, but I believe we must be careful that we don’t move from the cutting edge to the bloody edge in the process.

Second, agencies no longer have the ear of the church with which to educate them on the real need even though we are the ones in the “real” world living with the realities of choices made back home. Though it would be nice to specialize on what we do best, if that “best” is not perceived by the church (the funder of what we do) as in vogue then we had best diversify or redefine…or cease to exist in time. You know that our “hedgehog” (to use Jim Collin’s word) is leadership training. We have been doing it a long time. Strategically speaking, it allows us to multiply our resources by geometric proportions and impact continents of people. However, leadership training within the global church does not, directly, feed starving children, care for HIV/AIDS orphans, provide drinkable water or stop human trafficking. It can and will of course, in time, as the church, led by those leaders, starts to act like Christ in its community. But these things are what peaks the passion and opens the wallets of the church (generalizing here).

We are faced with the same challenge that faces much of the economic world. I will use the music industry to illustrate because that is a world I live in. If a musician wants to make a living within the artform they must produce music that sells, or is popular at that moment. Musicians know that this is not usually “good” music because “good” music, rarely, is popular. It goes beyond, and is different from, what is expected. So, musicians “sell out,” to a certain extent, to survive. There are some exceptions, of course; trendsetters to whom the world looks to define “popular.” We have few of those in the church and even fewer in missions. Those we do have may not be leading us in the way we should be going!

So what do we do? Do we stick with what we know is still needed and will make the greatest difference as our focused target though the church, at large, has moved on or do we diversify enough to keep one foot within the “popular” ministries while trying to keep our other foot solidly in what we do best and are convinced is the way forward?

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