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Fads, Trends and Faith-based Organizations

Recently, Chris Forbes of Ministry Marketing Coach caught up with Dr. Jay Gary, author, futurist and professor, on what he see for the future of nonprofits in the U.S.  For years Dr. Gary has conducted “Future Proof Your Ministry” workshops. 

1. What trends are you tracking now, that faith-based nonprofits need to deal with?

I have been tracking the impact on non-profits of the retirement of 46 million college-educated baby boomers by 2025. Non-profit executives have been talking about our aging donor demographics for years. For some, entire ministries will retire as their donor base does. We have been slow to realize that these workforce changes will totally redefine non-profit work in America. The U.S. labor force may have doubled over the past 50 years with the addition of women, but it will only grow at one-third of previous rates over the next four decades. This means government social services and non-profits will be saddled with enormous burdens. Census figures show that by 2030 there will be only three working adults to support every elderly person in the U.S., compared to seven back in 1950. Baby-boomers on fixed incomes will drop from non-profit donor roles and at the same time demand more mental and health care services. America will face a retirement avalanche, leaving the workforce with serious labor shortages. There will be a dearth of skilled employees in tech, science and other innovation areas, which outsourcing will likely fill. The newer entrants to the workforce by 2020, particularly women and Hispanic Americans, will not have the discretionary time or income to support the non-profit community. If you couple this with Barna’s projection of 20 million revolutionaries stepping outside the church to embrace self-managed spiritualities, then America’s faith-based non-profits, who serve the needy and the marginalized, are in for some lean decades–unless we rethink our service paradigms.

2. Wouldn’t the retiring Baby-boomers boost the non-profit volunteer labor force?

Yes, absolutely, in the short-run. You have a twin-trend here. While corporate America will lose the experience of millions of Baby-boomers due to retirement, and turn to global outsourcing to find skilled workers; domestic non-profits who have their ships ready will pick up thousands of highly trained retirees, who can lead mentoring, training or service programs. In reality, however, few non-profits will have the managerial ability to absorb the volunteer labor of the retiring Baby-boomers. We may have depended on their donations, but we don’t have a clue on how to leverage this wave of human capital. As a result, by 2020, older Americans, even faith-based populations, will plunge head-long into a Leisure Age, marked by travel, entertainment, and health and lifestyle enhancement services. Apart from new models of empowerment, the wealth of the largest and most educated generation in America will be consumed on itself.

3. In the faith-sector there are so many changes taking place with new approaches being tried, how can you tell which ones are fads and which ones are trends?

To use Jesus’ metaphor–fads are tares, while trends are wheat. You can’t immediately distinguish the two, unless you let them grow, and observe them. Only time series, or longitudinal data, can sort them out. Ideas such as the purpose driven church start off slow, gather momentum and spread quickly, but then reach maturity and level off. Every idea, every innovation has a past, a present and a future.

You can track these patterns of change through forecasting. I recently hosted Graham Molitor, at Foresight 2007. Molitor’s 22-step model of change gives executives real clues on how to frame, advance and resolve issues affecting both church and society.

Of course, before a trend is named or identified, you only deal with weak signals, and it is hard to separate the signals from the noise. But after the event horizon, when a fad changes, transforms and gains staying power, you can track it as a trend, or a mature driving force. The purpose driven church appears to be part of a larger Baby-boomer drive for aspiration, meaning, focus, and service. It might be part of what Inglehart calls a shift to post materialism in the West. This shift, tracked quantitatively through the World Values Survey, shows that aging populations in Northern Europe and America are more focused on self-actualization than just survival. This is a positive trend, if the church can figure out how to see postmodern spirituality as an opportunity, rather than a threat.

4. You talk about non-profits changing their service paradigms. Where do you see changes in media, like social media (web 2.0) taking communications in the future?

Social networking has moved beyond just a youth phenomenon on Facebook to a core methodology for strategic alliances to gather, network and mobilize human capital. Recently I became active on a Shaping Tomorrow a trend network. This has given me access to my professional peers in Europe in a way I could not have done three years ago.

These new technologies will also create a 3-D virtual world where local activists can interact with each other and build bottom-up change initiatives. Advertising will also populate “Second Life” virtual worlds, and transform the customer to company dynamic. Instead of taking a trip to the Mall, your teenager will visit a GAP store in 3-D, interact with an avatar sales agent, and purchase goods. The same dynamic will be used to attend 3-D night clubs, jazz festivals, or art galleries.

Six months ago the American Cancer Society held their first fundraiser in “Second Life.” This could have great implications for social interaction, spirituality, and religious behavior. Think of 3-D virtual worlds like Halo-3 computer gamers meeting Mother Teresa. Imagine Carlos in 2025, a Hispanic OD consultant in Los Angeles. He might forgo local congregational involvement, but participate regularly in holographic worship, populated by a youth bulge from south Asia. His volunteer service in a Google Earth replicated 3-D virtual world could be 20-hours a week through spiritual leadership and workforce training.

5. How did you become a social forecaster?

Very painfully. Back in the 1980s I was part of the century-end push to evangelize the world. By 1992, I realized that while the church could be called to action, it was failing to adapt and prepare its nets for the 21st century. I began to see beyond 2000, and work as a millennial consultant. I helped local communities use 1999 – 2001 to boost their triple bottom line, economy, ethics and environment. It gave me a new window on what it meant to be future-ready, and how faith, and special kairos seasons, could be used to galvanize change. I started hanging out with the World Future Society and then created
as a mentoring service for emerging leaders. I was a founding member of the Association of Professional Futurists. That led me to go back for my PhD with Regent University and launch their foresight emphasis. Now my job as a professor is to help mid-career professionals raise their game as futurists and strategists. I have up to 75 students each semester, spread out from MBA to Doctoral students. I teach them the practical skills I honed in horizon scanning, trend analysis, forecasting, and strategic change. I also help non-profit executives stand in the future and reinvent their ministries, by developing a future horizon 7 to 21 years out.

6. What are some resources that leaders can pick up now to help them get future-ready?

Beyond sending some of their thirty-something associates to earn an Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight online under me :-), they can pick up James Canton’s new book, just out in paperback, The Extreme Future (ISBN: 0452288665). I gave this book to a leader of one of our nation’s largest youth non-profits, and it has galvanized his desire to reinvent his ministry to meet the workforce needs of the future. On social networking and changing paradigms, I am reading Tapscott & Williams Wikinomics (2006) right now. Beyond focusing on the future, non-profit leaders should give attention to how they process this with their strategic teams. See Ralston & Wilson’s The scenario-planning handbook (2006) for how to lead by mapping uncertainty. If you are looking for a facilitator led day, I do a  “Future Proof Your Ministry” workshop, even online for non-profits, either in half-day or 6-hour formats.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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