Nestled amid tea fields in a valley outside Byumba, Rwanda, a group of 28 farmers, grocers, and tailors gathered in a small Anglican church. We heard the group before we saw them. They sang with gusto, beating their drums and stomping their feet in worship as we filed inside. Even our most-reserved visitors could not help but join the rhythm of dancing and singing.
After introductions were made, we settled in to observe the group. They studied Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, discussing how they might better practice community. “But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up,” they read. “A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” They then made savings contributions. Together, they had saved close to $500 USD over the past 12 months and had lent far more out to each other in small loans to grow their livelihoods, pay for school fees, and improve their homes.
And then they began sharing their stories. Every year for the past decade I’ve visited groups like this one in the communities where HOPE works around the world. To be frank, I’ve grown almost immune to the power of these stories. But not on this visit.
One group member stood up and shared, “I was depressed and alone before joining this group.”
Another stood and said, “I was ashamed and invisible before joining this group and now I have an identity.”
Still another member stood up and she said, “I used to be a backyard person only. I would not leave my house.”
This group member—a mother and wife—described how isolated she once was from her neighbors. How alone and ashamed she felt because of her poverty. She described how members of the group invited her to join their group. And how that invitation changed her life.
“I was saved at this church,” she shared. “And I now have people who can pray with me.”
The isolation she experienced is not unique to rural communities in Rwanda. It is not even unique to rural communities on the continent of Africa. Across the world, loneliness is endemic. Over the last 30 years, even as our wealth and technology have boomed, the “percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20% to 40%.” Studies have shown that feelings of isolation increase poverty and are “linked to cardiovascular disease, dementia, and depression and, according to some researchers, its effect on mortality is similar to smoking and worse than obesity.”
We are connected to everyone but truly known by very few.
She sat down after sharing her story. I stared out the front door of the small Anglican church to the hilly Rwanda landscape and beyond. Across the world, HOPE and our partners serve 550,661 savings group members in 32,789 groups like this one. Together, these groups have $11.9 million (of their own money) in savings accounts. But their impressive financial accomplishments pale in comparison to their isolation-fighting work. In these savings groups, men and women are known, dignified, and served.
No longer confined by her shame, this woman from Byumba, Rwanda is now a front yard person. She goes out into the world with confidence, feeling known and supported. Her savings group has not freed her from all hardship, nor fully eradicated the effects of poverty in her life. She may never have a big house nor the latest iPhone. But she has people who see her, pray with her, and depend on her.
On a Thursday afternoon in September 2016, Peter Greer scribed notes on his whiteboard as Jill Heisey and I kicked around ideas about a new book project. We came into that meeting with very little clarity about what the project would become. We left that meeting with just a bit more clarity, but a shared commitment to pursuing the project together.
In just two weeks, Rooting for Rivalswill be available in hardback and audiobook at all your favorite booksellers. Nearly two years after the genesis meeting, a whiteboard becomes a book. Just for fun, I’ve included the most common questions I get about the book below.
What’s the story behind the name?
The original working title for the book was Open Hands. We also kicked around the title Kingdom First. In the end, we liked Rooting for Rivals because it is both sticky and communicates the heart of the book. It was on a trip to Australia, however, where we learned that “rooting” holds quite lewd undertones Down Under. While blushing during a meeting with an Australian director of a Baptist camping ministry, I asked if we should consider changing the title. Without hesitation, he responded, “Absolutely not. Most Australians understand the American use of the word. And, you’ll likely sell more copies in Australia if you keep it as-is.”
What role do your agents play?
Andrew Wolgemuth was our agent for both Mission Driftand Rooting for Rivals. Andrew (also my brother-in-law!) is an agent with Wolgemuth & Associates (“W&A”). Akin to sports agents with athletes, literary agents help authors pitch their ideas and serve as guides to the confusing world of book publishing. We’ve said this elsewhere, but Andrew and the W&A team—Robert, Erik, and Austin—are the very best in the business. I’m obviously biased, but these guys are capable, faithful advisors and friends.
Who is the publisher?
Like with Mission Drift, Andy McGuire at Bethany House (an imprint of Baker Publishing Group) believed in this project and believed in us from the very beginning. The first time around, we pitched Mission Drift to a slew of publishers. Because of that experience, though, this time we went straight to, and only to, Andy. What stands out about Andy and the Bethany/Baker team is their genuine enthusiasm for these ideas.
What was Jill Heisey’s role?
Better question: What wasn’t her role? Jill and I both joined HOPE’s staff in 2006. During the last 12 years, she has worked in a whole host of full-time and part-time roles. But, in every assignment, she demonstrated her gifts as a writer, editor, and thinker. Jill sharpened our thinking and refined our writing. That she agreed to work with the two of us makes Peter and I forever in her debt. It’s not an exaggeration say this book wouldn’t exist if not for Jill. I’ll also note the roles of Brianna Lapp and Tom Lin. Brianna joined HOPE’s staff midway through this project and has played an important project management role over the last year. Tom embodies the principles in the book and wrote an exceptional foreword.
What’s it like to co-author?
Writing with Peter Greer is like sparring with a grizzly bear while riding a bull.
In seriousness, writing with Peter makes both of us better. He invites critique and offers it. He puts forward bold goals and invites helpful constraints. Our team used a shared Google Doc to draft, suggest edits, and collaborate. It became a bit unruly when the draft surpassed 30,000 words. But, otherwise, we found it to be a big improvement over emailing Word documents back-and-forth like we did last time. Some people ask if Peter is involved in the nuts-and-bolts or just the big ideas of the book. And, I can honestly say it’s both. Despite leading a full life and a growing organization, he is actively involved from start-to-finish.
Who financially profits from the book?
The Kingdom! Unless your last name is Rowling or Sparks, writing is not lucrative work. But, Peter and I have committed all the royalties from this project to HOPE and other like-minded churches and ministries. So when you buy a copy or a case (thanks, Mom!), you can trust it’s lining God’s pockets, not our own.
Why the seven deadly sins? …and the 2×2?
On the whiteboard in Peter’s office, we scribbled out a bunch of chapter ideas about how open-handed faith-based nonprofit leaders operated in contrast to close-fisted leaders: Covet vs. Celebrate, Hero vs. Humility, Enemies vs. Allies, etc. As these ideas germinated, we discovered our somewhat arbitrary list tightly mapped to a more time-tested list: the seven deadly sins. An early iteration of this concept, circa March 2017, shows a snapshot of the progression of the chapter outline.
The version of the 2×2 we included in the book emerged from the brilliance of Madi Burke. Madi, then a college student interning with us in Lancaster, suggested we consider Augustine’s categorization of sin as deficient love, excessive love, or misdirected love. These categories proved enormously helpful in organizing a 2×2 that was at that point still very much a work-in-progress (an earlier draft also included here, just for fun). Those two organizing frameworks helped to make sense of the book’s main ideas.
Are you doing anything fun to launch this book?
Yes! A group of 180 friends, family, and co-workers signed up to help us launch the book (THANK YOU!). With the tutelage and hosting of our colleague, Blake Mankin, we are producing a six-episode Rooting for Rivals podcast series. We interviewed a few of our heroes and can’t wait for you to hear directly from them. We also have a series of videos forthcoming where we’re not promoting the book but practicing it—actually rooting for our rivals. Be on the lookout.
What do your kids think about Rooting for Rivals?
My kids—ages 7, 3, and 1—are absolutely pumped about it. Apart from our oldest, all they know about the book is that the only pictures are tiny author headshots. Still, when I first saw the final product, they expressed their enthusiasm in their own unique ways:
Many other friends—some of you are reading this very post—volunteered to help launch Rooting for Rivals. Thank you, thank you.
Four years ago, Mission Drifthit shelves. In the book, we argued faith-based organizations make unique contributions to our world becauseof our Christian identity. And, demonstrated just how common it is for leaders of faith-based organizations to forget that. The continued enthusiasm for this book has surpassed even our high expectations for it. But when Peter and I reflected on the book’s impact, we realized it was incomplete.
Because even if our organizations remain steadfast, we might miss the mark. It is possible our efforts to protect and nourish the Christ-centered identity of our organizations can actually blind us to what exists beyond our organizational borders. In our research for Mission Drift, we met leaders like Wess Stafford, president emeritus at Compassion International. We experienced something in these leaders, but had not fully articulated it: They understood their mission was bigger than the organizational name printed on their business cards. Mission true leaders like Wess volunteered their time, organizational resources, and influence even when there was nothing in it for them. Though HOPE International is far smaller than Compassion, we are also a faith-based international nonprofit. Many of the donors who give to HOPE also give to Compassion. In many respects, we could be considered rivals, peer organizations appearing to compete for funding, staff, or recognition.
Wess didn’t see it that way. Even though we worked at different organizations, he graciously offered assistance. In retrospect, it wasn’t just Wess who modeled this type of radical generosity. This attitude was common with the exemplary leaders we interviewed in Mission Drift. They consistently went out of their way to help. Though they were busy leaders, they always seemed to make time. They shared openly about their models and missions. They answered our questions, and our follow-up questions, and our follow-up-to-the-follow-up questions. They seemed to have nothing to hide from us, no proprietary information or trade secrets. And they offered their time with no strings attached. They talked with us without any guarantees or even expectations we would feature them in the book. They actively pursued our good and not just their own. It was as if they had a calling and passion that superseded their organization—that helping us was in some way part of their mission. They acted as if we weren’t leaders of rival organizations competing for funding or recognition but friends on the same team working toward the same goal. At the core, these leaders seemed to think more about the Kingdom and less about their organization. Of course they cared deeply about the work they do, but they seemed just as passionate about serving others outside the organization. These encounters with Wess and other Mission True leaders left a lasting impression. We learned from these leaders who are even more animated by advancing God’s Kingdom than building great organizations. They were in it for the “long game,” willing to sacrifice time and organizational glory for this larger purpose. This point, which we almost missed, is significant. Beneath the very best mission true organizations are leaders who believe they have a calling beyond building their organizations. They see themselves as part of a much bigger team pursuing a much bigger mission. They root for their rivals.
Two months from now, Rooting for Rivals, our follow-up book to Mission Drift, releases. Peter and I are excited about this project. We had an incredible team behind this book. Dozens of people contributed to this book. Most notably, Jill Heisey provided invaluable research and editorial support over the last 18 months. And, Brianna Lapp served an important coordination role all along the way. Rooting for Rivals would not exist if not for their belief and commitment to this project.
And now we need your help. As we saw with Mission Drift, the months immediately surrounding a book’s release date are the most critical for its success. If you join our launch team (link below), we’ll provide you a free copy of the book and ask you to do four simple tasks this summer. Will you join us?
For many, overhead is a near profanity.
We all know stories about charities behaving badly with donated funds. Take the American Red Cross. Following the 2011 earthquake and subsequent aid response, researchers at ProPublica assessed the impact of the American Red Cross in Haiti. Their findings showed that although the American Red Cross had raised $500 million to help rebuild Haiti and the plan was to “focus [on] building homes,” four years later they had built just six houses. Much of their expenditures had been wrapped up in overhead to cover legal expenses, salaries, insurance, rent, licensing and government fees…you get the picture.
Well-reported stories like this create the impression that all nonprofits behave in the same fashion. As a result, each year I have countless conversations in which the spotlight shines brightly on overhead ratios.
A recent study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that 60% of the survey respondents believe nonprofits spend too much on overhead. Six years ago, respondents suggested $.22 per dollar spent was a reasonable amount for nonprofits to spend on overhead. This year, respondents suggested $.19 per dollar was a reasonable amount, a decrease of 14%. Given the trends, there’s no reason to believe the preferred overhead percentages won’t continue to decline. The public wants nonprofits continuously doing more with less.
Now, I am overhead. It would be fair to say this is personal for me. For the past decade, I’ve worked as a salaried, nonprofit fundraiser. In my role, I manage a fundraising team and oversee a $1.3 million budget situated squarely beneath the overhead umbrella. Not only am I overhead, but I recruit and manage a team of overhead employees!With scandalous headlines ringing in my ears, the growing scrutiny about nonprofit overhead spending, and my status as overhead always on my mind, here are five reflections:
Overhead ratios are squishy. How much of my salary is devoted directly to raising money for HOPE International? …and how much is devoted to educating the public about microfinance, poverty, and our mission? It’s a murky question and there’s no option for “all of the above.” But the answers to these and hundreds of similar questions inform the ratios we report each year. Our auditors weigh-in on how we allocate our expenses, but there’s quite a bit of ambiguity.
Overhead ratios are important. The squishiness of overhead ratios is not reason enough to ditch the metric entirely. It serves as an important bellwether and a key dimension of the overall picture of nonprofit financial health and stewardship. There’s a reason independent evaluation agencies like Charity Navigator (a founding partner of the “Overhead Myth”) and Excellence in Giving continue to assess the metric.
Overhead is important. Bridgespan estimates most successful businesses spend 34% of their budget on “overhead.” These businesses invest in fundraising, marketing, people, and systems because they believe they can create great products and services only if they have a firm foundation. Likewise, nonprofit overhead expenses create a healthy base from which these organizations can fulfill their mission. Equally as concerning as nonprofits investing too much in their fundraising and administrative functions are those investing too little.
Overhead ratios reflect leadership. Almost daily in my role, I engage with my peers in leadership of all sorts of nonprofit organizations. There isn’t enough space to name them all, but these men and women lead well. They have rightfully earned the trust of the public and are capable caretakers of their budgets and missions. They are the most concerned about ensuring their overhead spending is appropriate. For every story of one nonprofit behaving badly, there are five or ten (non)stories of nonprofits like these behaving admirably.
Overhead is leveraged giving. This year, for the first time in my tenure, a foundation designated their donation specifically toward fundraising expenses. They restricted their donations to overhead costs, funding the most-difficult expenses to fund. Likewise, many of our supporters today give unrestricted donations, trusting HOPE’s board and management to spend where resources are most needed. Remarkably, even as HOPE’s total budget has grown each year, the percentage of total unrestricted giving has grown as well. This unglamorous giving is one way donors can make a leveraged impact on the financial health of the organizations they most trust. Investing in things like fundraisers, updated software, and marketing campaigns allow nonprofit organizations to reach more people in more places.
Bible translation would seem a likely place for generosity and open-handed collaboration. Getting all of Scripture into every language is a clear goal shared by the global Church and multiple organizations. But like every sector, it’s also a place of fragmentation.
One foundation executive in Tennessee recently shared how one year, three different agencies approached him for funding to translate the Bible into the same language for the same people group. Literally, the impact was going to be a third of what it could have been if each organization focused on a different language. This type of redundancy is all too common within the nonprofit sector.
But a new example of generous Kingdom partnership is emerging.
Many translation agencies have looked up from their own efforts to realize their organization-centric pursuits were thwarting the collective mission of eradicating Bible poverty in our generation and making disciples of all nations. Together with humility and open-handedness, they focused on a shared mission of translating the Scriptures into every remaining language in the world.
Mart Green, founder of Mardel Christian & Education and chairman of the Hobby Lobby board, was perhaps the first to articulate a broader vision. In both professional and philanthropic pursuits, Green was committed to helping more people access the Bible. He reasoned that rather than having Scripture translations housed in separate systems within the various translation agencies, organizations and unreached populations alike would be better served by a digital Bible library, accessible to all.
He brought together three translation agencies and several significant philanthropists to mobilize this vision. The library launched in 2010 and now encompasses more than eleven hundred Scripture portions and versions.
Meanwhile, Todd Peterson, chairman emeritus and interim CEO at the time of Seed Company (a Wycliffe Bible Translators affiliate), was focused on the organization’s mission to see all languages have Scripture by 2025. To do so, he was beginning to communicate to supporters not simply the needs of Seed Company but rather the greater needs of the remaining Bible-less people groups.
Captivated by the larger vision, donors gave more generously than Seed Company had ever seen before. The organization shared this outcome with Green and then invited other translation agencies to collaborate on how best to invite donors to give to ensure every tribe and every nation would get Scripture in their heart language in our lifetime. They contended givers might allocate greater funds to an overall area of interest rather than a specific organization.
It was a radical idea, as collaborative fundraising usually experiences strong headwinds and donor events are not typically the place to find organizations praising their “competitors.” But with an attitude of abundance and an unwavering focus on the Kingdom, Seed Company viewed these other organizations as allies. They invited others in, and those invited came.
Individual agencies surrendered exclusivity and competition. “It means that you’re trying to make someone else successful,” said David Wills, president emeritus of the National Christian Foundation. “Our primary responsibility is to not get in the way of what God is doing.”
In 2017 ten Bible translation agencies, involved in more than ninety percent of global translation work, banded together to drive visitors to a single website titled illumiNations. In just one visit to the site, supporters can see Bible translation progress across the globe and be matched to translation projects based on interest rather than organization. This collaboration enables the Bible to be translated with better quality, efficiency, and affordability.
Leaders of these ten distinct translation organizations agree that the goal of making their organizations famous is subservient to the goal of making Christ known. Rather than compete for website visits or donors, these agencies have pooled their resources to accelerate their goal, accomplishing faster what would have taken vastly more time and resources to achieve independently. Knowing they needed to build relationships, they committed to meeting every month in person at the airport in Dallas.
Bible translators initially predicted that they would begin translation into the last language by 2150, but by working collaboratively, illumiNations believes they will have translated at least the New Testament for 99.9 percent of the world’s population by 2033. Through translation partnership, they plan to reach their goal 117 years ahead of schedule. 117 years faster.
Working together across organizational boundaries is complex and messy and laborious. It is also powerful.
In this beautiful example of rooting for “rivals,” Peterson and other Bible translation leaders who once competed for market share have allied against their common enemy of Bible poverty. In joining together, they have learned to say, “Thy kingdom come” instead of “my kingdom come.” This excerpt is adapted from Rooting for Rivals, available now for preorder.