Radical Adaptability: Facing Change with Faith
By Mike Farag, CEO of Fervor Marketing
Written for COOP
Friends, we are in a season of extreme change. Have you noticed how much is shifting around us? Do you wake up wondering “What’s next?” It’s not just the barrage of headlines; our churches and community organizations are in a state of upheaval as well. You’ve felt it, right?
Nonprofits are eyeing a recession on the horizon and anticipating struggles ahead; the number of small-gift donors already dropped 17% in 2022.1 Even though there’s some evidence that Millennials are returning to church in greater numbers post-lock-down2, overall, less than half of American adults are currently members of a faith community — for the very first time.3 Job stress, isolation and political divisions have led 42% of pastors to consider quitting in the past year.4 A full third of Generation Z don’t claim any religious affiliation, calling into question how churches will engage with young digital natives.3
I want to present a controversial opinion about all this change: It’s not a reason to fear. It’s not an excuse to panic, get defensive or bunker down. Instead, we’re being called to pay attention, get curious and even celebrate. If we believe God is good and at work in everything, then every season of change is a season of opportunity.
What does this era of opportunity demand from us? Radical adaptability.
Adaptability isn’t our natural posture when faced with destabilizing change. I lead Fervor, a marketing agency that helps faith-led organizations and nonprofits grow, starting with strategy. I can tell you that we’ve said “no” to more churches requesting marketing help in the past 12 months than we’ve talked to in the past 12 years. Why?
They are facing change but not asking the right questions. They want us to help get people back in the pews, but they aren’t asking what they need to switch up to make that happen. Adaptability requires bigger questions: How do we serve our community? How do we minister to them? How do we support them? How do we love them?
This is a huge opportunity for us as believers to recognize that we’re capable of more. I think God’s given us a chance to grow. God gave humans the capacity to change, and that’s what I’m really addicted to – helping organizations transform. But transformation is hard work. Here are a few things we’ve learned about adaptability while helping organizations like yours change.
Created to adapt
Fervor was founded to help a nonprofit change. In 2008, I went on a trip to Haiti with an organization founded by Mike and Beth Fox. At the time, it was called C3 Missions International. They had a good board, projects in three countries, a solid donor base, and I saw for myself what an incredible impact they were making.
But when I got back home, I ran into a major problem: It was hard to communicate to my friends and family what C3 was doing. Their name didn’t connect. Their website and communications didn’t do their amazing work justice. I told Mike I loved his organization, but that I was seeing a disconnect. Why wasn’t he putting the kind of marketing effort he invested in his secular business into his philanthropic life’s work?
He said, “You’re right. Fix it.” My first question to him was, “But are you open to fixing it?” In other words, are you ready to adapt? He said yes. And that’s how Fervor got started. I put together a team, and we dove right in. We learned several things about adaptability right away:
Lesson 1: Leaders need to be willing
Mike and Beth are the epitome of adaptability. The minute they understood there was a problem, they were willing to do what it took to change. Inspired by them, I call adaptation-minded organizations entrepreneurial nonprofits. But that willingness needs to come from the top. Mike and Beth showed me early on that real leadership looks like flexibility.
Lesson 2: Make it about the people you’re serving
One of the first things we knew needed to change was the organization’s name. C3 was an oblique reference to propane, the basis of Mike’s for-profit business. We knew the name needed to be about the nonprofit’s mission; the story needed to be about who Mike was serving, not Mike himself. But names are sensitive subjects. I asked him if there were any sacred cows — knowing the more sacred cows there were, the less adaptable the organization could be.
I’ve gotta hand it to him: He said everything was on the table, including his name and logo. There were no sacred cows! That kind of open-handedness is special. Lots of times founders have a hard time not making it about themselves. But Mike and Beth were ready to put the focus on the kids and the people who were on the journey with them.
Lesson 3: Sometimes you need to offer a pathway to change
We renamed the nonprofit the Global Orphan Project and rebranded everything: website, logo, communication pieces. We created a true strategic marketing plan where we understood the organization’s message and its best donors and advocates. We were a month from going live when Mike and Beth walked into my office feeling nervous. They had been having conversations with some of their key stakeholders, and those stakeholders weren’t as ready for the change as Mike and Beth were. So we came up with a plan: We’d launch the Global Orphan Project as a fundraising campaign of C3 . We would give people a chance to warm up to the new branding and take ownership of the new name. It worked. Very quickly the rest of the organization got comfortable with the changes and were able to follow Mike and Beth’s adaptable lead.
These early lessons from our origin story would come in handy a few years later, when Fervor needed to practice radical adaptability, too.
Adapt, but don’t get cute
Sometimes entrepreneurial organizations can be too good at adapting. You know the attitude: I’m going to change, but I’m going to change my way. I’m going to be the most innovative innovator you’ve ever seen! I admit it: I’ve got that propensity for tinkering, but I’ve learned that adaptability needs a steady hand, too. I had to practice a calmer, slower style of adaptability when Fervor began adopting the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) several years ago.
Lesson 4: Notice when things aren’t working…but don’t act right away
Fervor had a great year in 2017, but it was followed by a challenging 2018. One of our biggest clients got a lot smaller, and we lost some work we had been depending on. It gave me a chance to evaluate the health of our company. I had observed the practices of so many leadership teams, and I could tell the healthiest organizations had great rhythms. We didn’t. I didn’t want to be as stressed out as I was. I wanted to have a team of leaders I could count on to make decisions with me. If we wanted a different outcome, we needed to change the way we were operating. But I didn’t quite know how to make those changes…yet.
Lesson 5: Find wise counsel
Around that time, someone recommended Rocket Fuel by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters to me. I read it in a weekend and immediately started Wickman’s next, Traction. These books outlined a system (EOS) that helped organizations like ours establish better patterns and grow. I sent both books to Lori Zehr, Fervor’s Chief of Staff and my right hand. She had them both done before I finished Traction and sent me a text: “We’re doing this.” We found the right advice at just the right time.
Lesson 6: Follow that wise counsel
Lori and I got into a meeting room, took our tear sheets out, and started to outline how Fervor could implement EOS. And immediately I started to do what I always do: We could tweak this, we could do that our own way. Lori stopped me and asked me a good question: “Mike, why are we doing this?” I stopped. I thought. And then I had to answer, “Because we’ve tried it our own way, and it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to.”
We needed to actually listen to the wise counsel we found. So we both committed at that moment to run EOS exactly as outlined in the books for at least a year. That was a turning point for us. We adapted, but we didn’t do it on our own terms. Instead, we followed the example of those who went before us.
Four and a half years later, we have healthy rhythms, we have an engaged and happy staff, and we have a strong leadership team. All because we didn’t get cute with it. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Radical adaptability: Why now?
In addition to the macro-evolutions we talked about earlier, there are so many immediate, practical challenges demanding adaptability from faith communities and nonprofits. We’re currently walking alongside our clients as they stay flexible and make the most of the opportunities these changes are presenting:
- Multi-touchpoint communications matter. If you want to reach your audience and retain their attention, you need to communicate with them through multiple channels. There’s no silver bullet; there’s no one-and-done messaging anymore.
- Owned digital spaces are more important than ever. Digital spaces you don’t own, like social media, are increasingly noisy and hard to impact. We’re seeing thriving organizations shift focus to their own websites and email lists — and even leave social media altogether.
- Search is a priority. It follows that you need to get people to those owned digital spaces. Internet usage is at all-time highs; how can you make sure your content is coming up in searches? Are you giving people reasons to find you?
- New fundraising models. In addition to more traditional routes, some entrepreneurial nonprofits are finding solutions in investment funds, for-profit entities and more. I love this multi-faceted approach to solving hard problems.
- Work environments are drastically different. Organizations have fewer rules about how and where and when they work. I used to be a five-day-a-week, get-your-butt-in-the-office kind of guy. But I got taught some things in the past few years! We’re a hybrid workplace now, where everyone spends around two days a week in the office. I pray we never go back to five.
- Deeper calls — and higher stakes — for authenticity. Organizations need to know what they stand for and be willing to stick with it. You can talk a big game, but what happens when business is on the line? Do you have the character to follow your principles?
So how do you become more adaptable?
All of these challenges, both big and small, will force faith communities and nonprofits to ask themselves: Are we willing to change to meet the needs of the moment? And if we are willing, how do we actually practice the skill of adaptability? Here are a few suggestions:
- Live your why. There’s no better motivation than being locked into your calling. If you know your purpose, and are committed to living it, going through the pain of change will be worth it.
- Realistically count the cost. Speaking of the pain of change — it’s inevitable. Change hurts! It’s best to go into transformation with realistic expectations for what adapting will cost you. Growth comes with a price tag. Run scenarios so you know what you’re dealing with and can commit with open eyes.
- Get wise counsel. We’ll say it again: We all need to learn from each other. Seek out people you respect, study healthy organizations, and don’t be too proud to ask for advice.
- Stick with your plan. Change takes time. Don’t abandon your attempts at adaptability just because you don’t see an immediate impact! It’s just like going to the gym. That first day of a new workout plan feels terrible. But a few months in, you’re not only feeling great, but you’re seeing results. Give yourself time to evolve.
- Build the character needed to lead through change. We’ve seen past clients choose near-term profit over long-term change and growth. That’s a tragedy. Take care of your spiritual health (and the spiritual health of your team) so you have the fortitude to make the right choices.
When life hands you big changes, don’t be afraid to respond in kind. God made us creative. God made us curious. God made us adaptable. Radically adaptable, even! Ask the big questions and be ready for God to surprise you with what comes next.
- “‘Collapse’ in small gifts poses threat for nonprofits as recession looms, report says,” Drew Lindsay, The Chronicle of Philanthropy. 17 October 2022. Accessed 23 November 2022.
- “A New Chapter in Millennial Church Attendance,” Barna.com. 4 August 2022. Accessed 22 November 2022.
- “U.S. Church Member Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup.com. 29 March 2021. Accessed 22 November 2022.
- “Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year,” Barna.com. 27 April 2022. Accessed 22 November 2022.