Getting to know you: Future missionaries surf for agencies

 

This is the first in a three-post series.

Every day, people considering long-term cross-cultural service visit sending agency websites and social media pages.  What they experience in a few quick clicks can inspire them to bookmark a site, tweet about it to friends or complete an inquiry form.  Or it can lead them to a quick exit.

With mobilization events like Urbana and MissionsFest taking place in the next few weeks, agencies should be ready to put their best foot forward in assisting field-bound people to discover the next step in their journey.

Next month, GMI will field the 2013 Agency Web Review, in which hundreds of people considering long-term cross-cultural service will explore dozens of sending agency web sites, evaluating various website elements and providing helpful open-ended comments. Participating agencies will receive agency-specific reports with detailed feedback on their site, plus comparative data showing how the site’s ratings compare to a group of several dozen other agencies.

The study draws on GMI’s opt-in panel of more than 3,000 people who have confirmed that they are considering a career in cross-cultural mission. 

Eight years ago GMI fielded the first edition of the Agency Web Review, which provided actionable results for agency web designers and mobilization staff.  Kristi Crisp of World Gospel Mission had this to say about the study:

The Agency Web Review results helped us to set a better direction and convinced us of the need for changes.  …The World Gospel Mission website is a completely different site now.  We changed our focus to getting people actually going…whether with our organization or with somebody else.

In anticipation of the 2013 study, we are taking time to review a few of the highlights of the 2004 study.  The electronic communications landscape has changed dramatically since then, but many of the findings from 2004 continue to be useful. 

We asked which of 11 key activities people considering a missions career had done.  Visiting agency websites ranked fourth on the list (after attending conferences, reading mission books/newsletters and talking with missionaries).  Six out of 10 prospects had already visited the website of a sending agency.

The following chart reveals stated priorities for missionary prospects when visiting an agency site:

 

To us, the results suggest that the primary questions visitors of website visitors relate to identity: Who are you?  What do you do?  Where do you do it? What do you stand for?

Once those questions are answered, prospects feel free to consider, “OK, how would I fit in?” “What would it take for me to be a part?”

Stated priorities don’t reveal the degree to which elements of a website are linked to key response actions (more info in a few days on that), but they do express visitor expectations.  Therefore, we recommend that web designers make sure expectations are easily met without a lot of searching.  That means a well-placed “About Us” heading, opportunities that are dated and kept updated, and some explanation about what people can expect to happen after the inquiry form is submitted.  (That last item was the lowest-rated of 21 site elements tested across all organizations.)

In addition, we suggest providing some unexpected elements of “delight.”  A few of the unexpected pleasures encountered by site visitors include:

  • an opportunity to be prayed for by agency staff
  • engaging videos from field staff that give people a taste of daily life on the field
  • links to helpful resources for people considering service—even from other agencies

We noticed that the highest-rated agency websites tended not to minimize their service requirements, but they worked hard not to represent those requirements as barriers.  Their positioning was something like this:

“Becoming a missionary takes real commitment, knowledge and skills.  It’s not easy, but it is do-able, and we will walk alongside you to help you develop into an effective cross-cultural servant who enables others to realize all that God is calling them to.”

Do you know of an agency that incorporated user feedback into its website makeover? We’d love to hear about examples or standout experiences you’ve encountered.

Learn details about how to take part in the 2013 Agency Web Review here.

 

Applied research helps donors, implementers to be better partners

Research provides a needed listening function for the mission community.  Listening well results in better understanding, and better understanding usually leads to better ministry.

A great example of the way that research increases understanding and leads to practical action in ministry is the Lausanne Standards project that fosters dialogue and collaboration among ministry implementers and funders about the giving and receiving of money in mission.

Check out this entertaining whiteboard video that illustrates (literally) how the Lausanne Standards were developed and the role that research played.

GMI is honored to have conducted the first round of research (mentioned in the presentation) that supported the development of the Lausanne Standards.   Rob Martin, Lausanne Senior Associate for Global Philanthropy, whose voice (and likeness) feature prominently in the video, graciously gave us permission to discuss some of that research here on this blog.

A survey of 147 mission leaders – divided roughly 55/45 between ministry implementers and ministry donors – revealed that both groups agreed that positive funding partnerships are almost always an important issue.  However, the leaders were divided on whether partnerships were problematic, and what the nature of the problems (if any) and solutions were.

Cluster analysis led to the identification and description of four “attitude segments” among ministry donors and implementers.  This enabled the research sponsors to understand the likely objections to developing a set of guidelines for philanthropic partnerships.

 

Each of these groups believes that funders and implementers want to partner well with one another.  However, each could pose a significant objection to the process of developing standards for effective funding partnerships.  Proceeding clockwise around the grid, from top left:

  1. Standards aren’t enough to fix the problems of dependence and power in philanthropy!  We need to overhaul the system and create new structures for working together.
  2. There isn’t a problem to address – the perceived conflicts in philanthropic partnerships are exaggerated.  Just because the work is hard doesn’t mean the system is broken.
  3. You can’t engineer a policy-based solution to a spiritual problem.  Partnership issues will dissolve when people focus more on the Lord and recognize their common dependence on God.
  4. Codes and policies are no substitute for deeper relationships with one another.  Making a greater effort to understand our neighbor will lead to more effective partnership, with or without a set of standards.

The Lausanne working group’s responses to these objections are:

  1. Yes, we can benefit from creating new forms.  Finding points of affirmation is a perfect starting point.
  2. Yes, the work is challenging, and good communication will help us to address challenges more effectively.
  3. Yes, human-centered solutions are insufficient.  Agreements must be developed and implemented in reliance on the Spirit.
  4. Yes, we must grow in understanding – and agreed-upon standards reflect an increasing level of understanding.

Watch the video again to see how some of these messages are communicated clearly and effectively.  That’s research in action!  Here, segmentation is not a tool to create or emphasize division but a means of addressing concerns to develop consensus and discover unity among varied perspectives.

Research for the sake of knowledge puffs up, but research for the sake of love builds up (variation on 1 Corinthians 8:1).  How are you are seeing research applied in your area of ministry?

Using research to help create the future

This week the International Association of Missionary Aviation has its annual meeting in Idaho.  GMI board member Jon Lewis is the plenary speaker.

Five years ago, GMI played a significant role in IAMA’s annual meeting, as we presented the results of a multi-year research project looking at the present and future of mission aviation.  The idea behind the FlightPlan project was that global mission was trending away from an emphasis on overcoming physical barriers and moving toward an emphasis on overcoming political, cultural and religious barriers.  In such a world, what might be the appropriate – or potential – roles for the people and tools of the mission aviation community?

A cornerstone of GMI’s 184-page report was a set of seven prospective “models” for ministry.  These models emerged from an analysis of conditions and needs in mission and in general aviation – but also by looking at innovative enterprises in sectors that are “near neighbors” to mission aviation:

  • Organizations on the fringes of the mission aviation sector, such as Wings of Hope, a non-sectarian group that was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Commercial entities that complement or parallel mission aviation, such as air taxi service and fractional jet ownership.
  • Organizations in the supply chain of mission aviation, such as aviator training schools and small-aircraft developers like Quest Aircraft.
  • Organizations that deal in similar activities to those of mission aviation, such as the global logistics industry and the UN’s World Food Programme.
  • Organizations that could be viewed as competitors to mission aviation, such as the Aga Khan Development Network, which sponsors community air service in the spiritual “Tension Belt” of Africa.

This near-neighbor approach is a systematic, intentional way of developing viable new models for business or ministry.  We didn’t think this up on our own; we borrowed the concept from Kim and Mauborgne, the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy (who are said to have built on ideas from Clayton Christensen and others).  They say:

The process of discovering and creating blue oceans [new models and markets] is not about predicting or preempting industry trends.  Nor is it a trial-and-error process of implementing wild new business ideas that happen to come across managers’ minds or intuition.  Rather, managers are engaged in a structured process of reordering market realities in a fundamentally new way.  (pp. 79-80)

That quote captures the kernel of using research in strategic planning.  Are you engaged in that process?

For the FlightPlan project, we used the process to identify seven models that organizations could use to challenge their strategic thinking and focus their strategic planning.  These included:

The Agile Provider: In a world where change is constant, this provider (or network) is ready for anything – broad and acute needs, short- and long-term deployment, people, skills and/or cargo. The Agile Provider has the resources, processes, flexibility and drive to deliver many resources in many places, on many scales, for many purposes – with the ultimate purpose of representing Christ to the world.

The Nation Developer: This knowledgeable organization assists in the development of transportation and communications infrastructure in nations that have a combination of spiritual needs and capacity-development needs, with focus on nations that have not been open to traditional forms of Christian witness.

The Field Opener: Because places remain where Christian workers – and thus the gospel – face physical barriers that prevent or delay access to God’s word and the Church, this provider (or network of providers) efficiently develops air access in remote areas, paving the way (sometimes literally) for others who are good spiritual and financial stewards of the access provided.

The Tribal Advocate: As tribal peoples direct the development and application of technologies to meet their current and future needs, knowledgeable Christian individuals and groups assist and advocate for them, honoring their decisions and partnering with them in carrying out their priorities and achieving their goals.

The Microaviator: A missionary, church or national church planter who uses one’s own plane as a personal vehicle to get from place to place quickly and safely, or who hires an air taxi service to do so. Microaviators typically use very small planes to do their work. They consider themselves missionaries first, aviators second. Microaviators may also include churches that charter business aircraft to transport short-term teams.

The Business Creator: An enterprise that uses business-as-mission strategies to establish aviation-related commerce, jobs and influence in cities and villages in less-reached areas. Independently, or in partnership with nationals, the Business Creator improves livelihoods for believers and unbelievers, builds goodwill, sets a positive example through faith and lifestyle, and creates natural evangelism opportunities.

The Resource Broker: This provider obtains, enhances and deploys valuable time and technology resources for aviation as they become available. The Resource Broker skillfully identifies, evaluates and capitalizes on resources that may be donated, loaned, salvaged, purchased at auction, etc. This low-cost, high-value approach enables the deployment of resources at an affordable cost for end users. Known for good stewardship and the ability to utilize resources that do not easily fit into traditional suppliers’ systems, the Resource Broker monitors aviation needs and opportunities to determine the best way to deploy resources.

Click here learn more about the FlightPlan research project and to download an executive summary of the research.

There are many ways to do futures planning and scenario research.  A good link to many resources for ministries is Jay Gary’s Christian Futures Network.

I know of at least two mission organizations that have done their own futures research with a high level of skill and intentionality.  One is Mission Aviation Fellowship, whose former COO David Bochman did such a project as part of his doctoral dissertation.  Another is Pioneers, though neither project has been published, to our knowledge.

What about you?  If your agency is interested in researching possible and preferable futures for your organization, let us know – GMI Research Services will be glad to help.

Visual projects need visual research. Case Study: GMI logo.

Are you using stories visually?  If so – or if not – check out the Visual Story Network to discover the power of visual stories.

Which brings us to visual research.  When the output is visual, it helps if the input is, too.  Rather than using words to tell a designer what her work should look like, visual research shows the concepts and elements that can be easily adapted into visual communication.

There is a lot of psychological theory underlying representative aspects of visual design.  While it helps to know why something works, sometimes it is sufficient just to produce something that works.

Some forms of visual research are highly sophisticated; others are accessible and usable for almost anyone.  For an example of the latter, check out Visual Explorer.

Some simple, informal visual research – nearly a decade old – turned out to be influential in the design of the current GMI logo.  As you read the story, think about ways that you could apply visual research.

For many years, GMI used this logo:

To some, it said, “We aspire to be the IBM of the mission world.”  To me, it said, “The world as obscured by a Venetian blind.”

We sometimes paired it with the tagline “Helping the Church See.”  I guess the logo could represent our helping the Church to see God’s world by opening the Venetian blinds of ignorance.  But no one wants to be told he or she is ignorant.  And GMI’s technical skills go well beyond adjusting window treatments.  Why not take the blinds down completely, open the window and climb through?

In 2010, after at least a decade of talking about it, GMI finally took the initiative to rebrand.

There’s a tangential story that I’ll mostly skip over about the debate over a potential name change to something other than Global Mapping International.  In the end, GMI opted to emphasize its well-known acronym, paired with the tagline: Strategic mission research and mapping. 

We had done some simple research on the GMI brand back in 2003.  The first step was interviewing staff to get their input on the personality characteristics of GMI.  In words.  Some wanted to talk about what GMI did, but we fought to stay focused on who GMI was in terms of personality and values.  It would have been good to include some of our resource users and other stakeholders as well, but we were less interested at that point in external image and more interested in internal identity.

Eventually, nine themes emerged that were mentioned frequently through the use of related words:

  • trustworthy
  • informed
  • supportive
  • innovative
  • stimulating
  • adaptable
  • engaged
  • pragmatic
  • accessible
  • courageous
  • compassionate

We revisited this list during the design process, using a simple online survey with the board and staff to prioritize the characteristics – that prioritized the characteristics in the order listed above.

But the input was still purely verbal.  The designer took the old logo and the personality elements, then went to work on a new concept, seeking to retain a connection to elements of the old logo.  Here was the first draft I saw:

I liked the way that a data/technology element was incorporated, but I felt that the image offered little warmth and a bulky font.  It communicated “trustworthy” perhaps, but definitely not “accessible,” “adaptable,” or “compassionate.”

I was one of many who were given an opportunity to offer feedback on the design.  In addition to the comment above, I mentioned a piece of visual research that we had done in early 2003 to follow up on the personality characteristics that we had identified.

Our visual exercise involved a few hundred logos, some from ministries and some from commercial organizations, printed and strewn across a conference room table.  Staff members were asked to select logos that captured each of the personality characteristics identified in the interviews.  I analyzed the selected logos both by characteristic and as a group, looking for patterns or trends that might help to capture the full set of personality traits.

Visual elements that popped up frequently included silhouettes, question marks and a particular combination of colors.

I wrote to the design team:

When we did our visual tests way back when, the colors most often paired with blue were gold and black.  Would like to see a treatment that incorporates those – perhaps using them in the map border and in a scattering of the data ovals.

Unfortunately, I was living overseas and did not have a copy of the research “report” with the visual input to show the designer what I was talking about.  The document was only three or four pages — a few paragraphs of analysis interspersed with selected images taped onto the paper.  It existed only in hard copy; I never got around to scanning it.

With input from many people, the designer had to choose which ideas to incorporate.  The second attempt seemed to be a step back:

One issue was the skewed rendering of the continents relative to the oval representing the globe.

In my response, besides noting that issue, I asked the design team to locate the 2003 visual research report and try at least one design using the blue, black and gold combination.  I also wrote:

I would also like to see us at least consider rendering the GMI in lowercase in the main logo.

This was also supported by the visual research.  I mentioned three reasons for trying lowercase:

  1. To help communicate Adaptable and Accessible – hopefully not at the exense of Trustworthy and Supportive.  After all, if Intel and AT&T can use lowercase text in their logos…;
  2. To reflect a sense of servanthood and credit-sharing that has been a hallmark of GMI’s work in partnership with others; and
  3. To create room to give a nod to Innovation and Stimulation by stylizing or coloring the dot in the “i.”

The next version revealed that the designer was listening:

Now I thought we were getting somewhere.  In his email delivering the artwork, the designer mentioned reviewing the visual research (and admitted that he chose to substitute gray for black — which makes sense for high-tech applications).

This concept received positive feedback from almost everyone, so the process moved to refinement.  Several options and variations were considered, along with various color combinations.  As it turned out, the winning logo was indeed a combination of blue, black and gold.

Why those colors?  The standard color psychology interpretation holds that blue provides trust and dependability, black reflects strength and authority (plus clarity on a white background), and gold implies wisdom, along with generosity of time and spirit.  Deep blue and gold are also complementary colors on the color wheel.

I also felt that the logo represents a simple story about GMI does and why: GMI brings forth insights from information to support others in bringing the light of the Gospel to a dark world.

To go further, GMI produces and is engaged with data, organizing and interpreting it to draw out points of insight.  The data is drawn from and often describes the world.  The insight helps advance the work of revealing God’s light to the world.  Our work is supportive, so lowercase “gmi” is at the bottom.

I didn’t expect to get a logo that told a story, but I think the power of telling that story will be meaningful in communicating GMI’s work.

The logo may seem a bit busy, but then, so are we – so even its weakness fits.

Sometimes research projects have little impact on decision making for various reasons – changing conditions, political or financial considerations, a leader’s preference, or something else.  But in this instance, a simple visual research project spoke into the project in meaningful ways.  (It was much later when I noticed that the continents in world map appear in silhouette, another theme from the research.)

Think about ways that you may be able to gather image-based information for your visual projects.

New research: Perceptions about mission internships

This post teases GMI’s upcoming survey report on perceptions of mission internships among current and future missionaries.

UK-based mission researcher and Redcliffe College principal Rob Hay told me (years ago) that his research among future missionaries in Europe showed that many intended to serve long term, but few were willing to make a career-length commitment to an individual agency.

So, GMI thought that mission internships (6 months to 3 years) would make a good survey topic for its North American panels of long-term cross-cultural field missionaries and people considering long-term cross-cultural field service.

This post deals with an open-ended question about perceptions.  More than 300 field missionaries and more than 300 people considering long-term cross-cultural service were asked:

When you think of cross-cultural field internships, what are a few of the first words that come to mind?

Here are word clouds reflecting the frequency of the top 100 response terms.

Prospective Cross-Cultural Missionaries:

Current Cross-Cultural Missionaries: 

What do you notice about these two word clouds?  Here are a few things I noticed:

  • For future missionaries, internships appear to be a learning experience that comes with a healthy dose of work.  For current field missionaries, internships appear to be a work experience that comes with a healthy dose of learning.
  • Future missionaries see internships as a spiritual experience. God was prospective interns’ fourth-most-frequently used term.  Also, Jesus, prayer and faith appear among frequently-used terms.  This group is eager to see God and to be a part of God’s work in the world.
  • By contrast, current field staff view internships as a ministry experience, something related to work and profession.  You can see Godin the word cloud, but on a much smaller scale, and almost no other spiritual terms.  Hopefully, this isn’t reflective of the spirituality of field missionaries!  Rather, it shows that they view internships through the lens of work activity.
  • Work dominates the current field missionary cloud.  They likely view internships not only as a lot of work for the intern, but also as a lot of work for resident missionaries.  Interns require a good deal of supervision and mentoring, which takes time.  There are immediate benefits in terms of enthusiastic service and future benefits in terms of long-term recruiting potential, but obtaining those rewards has a cost: work.
  • Both groups see experience as a key descriptor of mission internships.  But in what sense is the word used?  Is it about having a valuable experience (to be reflected upon) or is it about gaining experience (to be applied in the future)?  For current missionaries, the perspective is forward-looking, with future, preparation and potential appearing.  For prospects, there is a bit more balance.  While long-term and training are prominent, so is rewarding – suggesting intrinsic value, not just preparatory value.
  • Both groups see internships as an opportunity and are generally positive about them.  Good and great appear in moderate-to-large type in both clouds.  Current field workers also used the terms beneficial, excellent, positive and effective.
  • Both groups also are well aware that mission service of any length is challenging.
  • Time is a key element in internships.  In both clouds, the words time, term, long and short appear.
  • Financial considerations are an issue for prospective missionaries.  Support and fundraising aren’t the most prominent terms, but they are a real challenge/barrier for some prospects.  Those terms don’t show up on field missionaries’ radar as a key element of internships – they may assume that people considering long-term service will certainly be able to raise funding for a shorter-term opportunity (with those dollars easier to raise because they do not require a long-term commitment from donors).

What do you see in these clouds?  What are you concerned that you can’t see?