To retain missionaries, help them keep their CHIN UP

Retention of field staff is a key effectiveness issue for mission sending entities. In The Future of the Global Church (p227) Patrick Johnstone notes that “the period most likely to prove fruitful in cross-cultural church-planting ministry” is between the eighth and 17th years of field service.

Retention is also a key stewardship issue, as the costs of recruiting, qualifying, training, funding and sending a cross-cultural worker are vastly front loaded (incurred before sending and in the early stages of field ministry).  This is true regardless of the worker’s country of origin.  From a financial perspective, sending costs are “amortized” over a worker’s tenure on the field—the longer the tenure, the more cost-effective the sending process.

While it is true that when missionaries need to leave the field, allowing them to stay on can be damaging (personally, organizationally and ministerially), the general principle remains: encouraging and equipping workers toward longer tenures is a worthy goal.

A few weeks ago I spoke to prospective cross-cultural workers on “How to Become an Ex-Missionary…Or Not.” The research supporting the talk came from the qualitative module of the Engage study (fielded 2006 and 2007), which GMI did in partnership with Best Christian Workplaces Institute and Rob Hay, now principal of Redcliffe College.

A bit of backstory before getting to five key retention factors for North American cross-cultural workers.

The Engage research was initiated by the WEA Mission Commission as a North American follow up to the global ReMAP and ReMAP II studies on attrition and retention, which led to the publication of the useful books Too Valuable to Lose and Worth Keeping.

The ReMAP studies did a great job of outlining best practices in missionary retention on a global scale, as well as in drawing attention to the issue.  For example, the 60-plus agencies participating in the U.S. portion of the studies could be divided into virtually equal groups based on retention.  High-retention agencies averaged 97.4 percent retention annually, while the low-retention group averaged 90.4 percent.  When compounded over a decade, the high-retention rate projects to 77 percent of non-retired workers remaining on the field, while the low-retention rate projects to only 37 percent remaining.  You can read the source report here.

Still, there was one significant problem with the ReMAP studies: no current field workers were interviewed, only agency administrators.  We first got involved when the ReMAP II U.S. study coordinator asked GMI to review the U.S. data.  Certain variables appeared to yield counter-intuitive results—meaning agencies that rated themselves as high performers in certain dimensions actually had lower retention than those that rated themselves as lower performers.  How could this be?  Easy—self-evaluation often produces results such as these due to differences in standards.  Highly effective organizations typically have very high standards.  Therefore, they see more room for improvement than do their peer organizations.

The solution: don’t self-evaluate.  Allow others—in this case, current and former field missionaries—to rate how well a sending organization equips and supports them.

That’s what we did in the Engage study.  The quantitative module surveyed more than 1,700 current field staff from 17 organizations.  Results verified that an organization’s retention rate correlates positively with the attitudes of current field staff.  That finding refutes the hypothesis that ex-missionaries are merely can’t-hack-it, sour-grapes misfits who needed to be weeded out.  Rather, an agency’s missionaries reside along a likelihood-to-stay continuum.  The better an agency’s vision, leadership, training, policies and support, the less likely workers are to fall off of the attrition cliff.

The qualitative module compared the experience of more than 40 current field missionaries and more than 40 ex-missionaries who had left before retiring or completing a fixed assignment.  Questions asked of both groups included open-ended inquiries about factors that encourage or discouraged continuing service.

Group comparisons of coded responses yielded five key encouragement factors (as well as six key discouragement factors).

I remember those five encouragement factors through the acronym CHIN UP:

CH      A strong sense of personal CALLING and HOPE from God

I          A feeling of INCLUSION in team/agency decision making

N        A perception of great spiritual NEED among the people being served

U        A sense of personal USEFULNESS, regardless of visible ministry progress

P        A strong sense of God’s PROVISION via the prayer and generosity of others

Agencies and their member care departments will do well to regularly check the pulse of their field staff in those key areas.

Want to know more about applying insights from Engage?  Contact us at GMI about speaking to or consulting with agency leadership and/or member-care staff on retention issues.  We also love to speak with future missionaries about how they can prepare to avoid becoming ex-missionaries.

Also, agencies can sign up to do the Engage survey with your current field staff.  Best Christian Workplaces offers the survey at a very reasonable cost, using a sliding scale based on the number of field workers invited to take part.  It is a great investment that also adds to an ongoing database of learning about retention.  Please let them know that you heard about Engage from GMI.

 

 

Analysis links website “personality” to follow-up actions

 
Third in a series of three posts looking forward to the 2013 Agency Web Review by reviewing highlights from a prior edition of the study.

As in 2004, the upcoming edition of the Agency Web Review will not only consider the rational elements of a missions website (clarity, functionality, information) but also the emotional side—its “personality”—and how that aligns with visitors’ responses and potentially influences follow-up activity.

From a list of 40 or so descriptive terms, respondents select the ones that they felt best describe each website.  Once data collection is complete, GMI analysts use factor analysis to boil those characteristics down to a smaller set of themes, or personality factors.  Then, they use regression analysis to measure how those themes correlate with the follow-through outcomes that agencies are looking for: revisiting the site, recommending it to peers and pursuing service opportunities.

In 2004 four out of the 10 personality factors correlated strongly with desired actions.  Web designers for the participating agencies learned about these factors and were able to draw on them in adapting their sites to encourage future missionaries to take the next step.  Those four factors are shown in this chart:

The degree of correlation varied depending on the follow-through action being studied.  For Intent to Recommend, the strongest link was to the “Creative” aspect of a site (a factor comprised of “Creative,” “Fresh,” “Visual” and “Non-Traditional”).  For overall website appeal, the same four factors emerged, but with “Energetic” (an absence of characteristics such as “Calm,” “Simple” and “Casual”) at the top of the list.  

How did designers use this information? Here are two ways: 

  1. Striking the right balance between identifying with who your audience is and who it aspires to be.  The presence of Energetic and Creative suggests that an agency should demonstrate that it understands the next generation of workers and is relevant to them.  This is the classic affinity principle—demonstrating that an agency is “for people like me.” Prospects are drawn to organizations that have and welcome high-energy people with a creative spirit.At the same time, the presence of Wise (“Humble,” “Experienced”) and Capable (including “Secure” and “Aware”)  suggests traits that future missionaries do not yet have—especially in terms of cross-cultural effectiveness.  Prospects desire to develop these qualities and hope that an agency will be able to draw them out.  Prospects look for signals that an agency knows what it is doing and can help new people get where they need to be.

    It is easy to miss the mark a bit one way or the other.  Too much creativity can be misinterpreted as an emphasis on style over substance.  Too much emphasis on experience and resources can be misread as close-mindedness or lack of need.  In short, prospects don’t want agencies that aspire to be “like them”—rather, they do want to be understood while being given something to aspire to become.

  2. Designers also need to understand what is not helpful.  In this case, six other website personality factors were not significantly linked to any of the key follow-through behaviors:  intention to revisit, refer or respondto opportunities.  Websites that were viewed as “Courageous,” “Concerned,” “Sharp” (incorporating “Confident” and “Smart”), “Thoughtful” or “Fun” likely did not generate the best possible response from visitors.(Note that positioning does not refer to the inauthentic donning of characteristics that are not part of an agency’s identity, but rather to expressing aspects of one’s true identity that are likely to resonate with candidates.)

Web designers usually know how to help make a website more usable or functional.  Some also have intuitive skills that enable agencies to strike the right notes in messaging and imagery. But for those who don’t—and even for those who do—message modeling can provide a well-defined target to shoot for and criteria to assess whether the messages are hitting their mark.  Such models are a standard feature of the Agency Web Review report.

Eight years after the first review, who knows how the personality characteristics may have changed?  New factors are likely to emerge in association with key outcomes.  To find out, be sure to register for the 2013 Agency Web Review.

 

From their keyboard to your web designer

(Second in a series of three posts)

As we introduce the 2013 Agency Web Review, we are reviewing highlights from the 2004 edition.

It is great for an agency to get numeric ratings on various aspects of its website—especially when comparable ratings for a group of other agency websites are available to show relative strengths and weaknesses.

But the ratings come to life when designers and mobilizers learn the specific reasons beneath the great ratings—or when they get suggestions to improve elements of their site.

Back in 2004, when we first gathered opinions of dozens of agency sites, social media was still in its infancy and dialogue with prospects was much less prevalent—so getting actionable feedback from the target audience was more difficult.

Today future missionaries have more channels to offer ideas—the challenge is getting them to take time to look closely and consider how their input can help.

Next month, the Agency Web Review will provide incentives to those considering cross-cultural service to spend several minutes observing agency websites—and then offering their opinions about them.  In addition to numeric ratings, respondents will provide open-ended feedback on their initial impressions, the website’s strengths, and elements that can be improved.

Here are some of the verbatim quotes from future missionaries.  Would any of these apply to your site?

It was attractive, but it wasn’t obvious what they did.

 

It was a little cluttered with things and I really didn’t know what I should click on. But it was VERY informative.

 

Really liked the home page and the different pictures that come up when you point at the options to enter.

 

Opportunities— list was hugely long—I had no idea which ones to select.  Perhaps narrow the categories a bit for a first selection.

 

They recommended books which would be helpful for someone looking for more resources and help in a particular area.

 

I liked the opportunity boxes that popped up over the world and then I could click on them.

 

Include more stories about past missionaries’ experiences.

 

I love the emphasis on prayer. I think that it probably points to a good orientation.

 

Things weren’t hidden in fine print from what I could tell in my brief study. Everything seemed very up-front.

 

Give more detail about service opportunities without requiring a person to receive mailings.

 

I could not find a belief statement.

 

It is impressive they have the site in a different language.

 

Increase the size of the font, I can barely read it.

 

Visually a bit sparse, but seemed spiritually grounded.

 

There is a lot going on, visually creative. I wanted to learn more.

 

Seemed to be more focused on their organization than on the people they were serving, kind of a turn off.

 

Mission and values were clearly stated and inspiring.

 

The global map links on the home page didn’t all work.  I couldn’t find a webmaster link to report it.

 

How do I actually work for (agency)!? I have no idea how to apply or what to do if I want to work with them!

 

Present more ‘in your face’ opportunities to serve or donate.

 

I really liked that one of the first things I saw invited me to pray with the group.  It gave me a way to get involved right now.

At the agency level, this kind of feedback is especially valuable for designers.  Collectively, comments about dozens of sites can be coded and analyzed for helpful trends.  Comments in the 2004 study most frequently related to the following:

  • Ease of Navigation
  • Quantity of Information
  • Organization of Site
  • Design / Layout / Color
  • Graphics / Photos

The most-frequently-mentioned opportunities for improvement fell into these categories:

  • Information about Opportunities
  • Visual Style / Layout
  • Information About the Agency
  • Text / Font
  • Verbal Style

What kinds of ideas has your agency implemented on its website based on the suggestions of visitors?  Add a comment and let us know!

 

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?