Sunday, March 1, 2015

Focus Leadership Institute: What Went Wrong?

Read part 1: Requiem for the Focus Leadership Institute 
Read part 2: What Went Right

I handled alumni relations for the entire time that the Focus Leadership Institute was in decline. Because of my time in that role, I know many graduates were surprised to hear this week that the program has been discontinued.

What in the Sam Hill happened?

For those who attended back when there were more than 2 applicants for every seat, it's hard to imagine that FLI ended up struggling the way it did. But believe me, we struggled. My last few semesters, we operated with fewer than 20 students, down from a sustained high of 88 students (2000-2007). The threat of closure hung over our heads constantly.

Since our job was equipping future leaders, one last service I can do is to reflect on what caused the decline. I write about in hope that others can learn from our mistakes and avoid them.

Obviously, I am no longer a spokesperson for the Institute and I'm not writing this in any official capacity. I've also given myself some pretty strict boundaries: I will not blame anyone, though it goes without saying that someone (or maybe many someones) made each of these decisions. Neither will I venture to discuss the role and responsibility of Focus on the Family as a parent organization. Neither of those seem helpful right now.

But since I think that the Institute's issues happen to many organizations, I'll share what I learned the hard way. Maybe it'll spare you the pain.

1. Technology is Important.

Understatement of the decade: if you are trying to recruit twenty-somethings to do anything, you have to USE THE INTERNET. The Institute predated iEverything and quite simply failed to make the transition to the digital age. Some big mistakes were

  • Not having an online admissions application. Later, having one that was pretty hard to use. Similarly, not allowing prospective students and alumni to manage their own communication preferences.
  • Not having very good data on our audience; not mining our data for insights about the audience we could best connect with.
  • Using our website as if it were a print brochure. Not being findable on Google. 

2. Set Your Content Free.

The Institute's faculty produced reams of fantastic content over the years. These were folks who could teach for three hours straight and not elicit a yawn. But you had to be SITTING IN THE CLASSROOM to partake of it. Bad strategy.

If you want to sell content (for instance, a semester in that classroom), you've got to give some of it away. Turn it loose. Share video clips on YouTube. Publish a top-notch blog. Give people a taste of what you've got and make it good. Only then will they want to pay you to get more of it. 

3. Don't Complain About What You Can't Change.

Who has two thumbs and is guilty of this one?

I'll let you guess.

It's a weakness I began to recognize and work on when Dr. Steve Lee asked me what good I thought I was going to do griping about how long I'd been beating my head against the wall over some problem (See #1).

It's my issue. But it was also part of the FLI culture. We spent a lot of time internally defending our territory and complaining about someone else preventing us us from making progress. What we should have been doing was innovating the heck out of the things we did have control over.

Yes, there was bureaucracy. Yes, there were circumstances we didn't create. Yes, the economy tanked. But there were many things we did have jurisdiction over, and we didn't work those from every angle, as we should have.

Which is not to say that there was no innovation. There were awesomely creative things going on at FLI. Just not in the one area that would have made the pertinent difference: finding ways to make money doing what we did. And that might have something to do with this next one...

4. Get the Right People on the Bus.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins identifies staffing as a major difference-maker for businesses that have made the leap from good to great. Get the right people on your bus, Collins says, and make sure they're in the right seats.

The Institute's biggest challenge on this front was the seats that were left empty. With a peak staff size of 21 and the high value we placed on the glorious but inefficient work of building relationships, it was hard to cover all of the crucial business functions. (And I am not even going to mention the semester when we did opening retreat and orientation with a staff of 6. And I was 8.75 months pregnant and my back was out. I have blocked it out of my mind.)

We had wonderful academics, student life folks, enrollment peeps and support staff. And most of the time, everyone was doing more than one job. But there was never (until too late in the game) anyone who was hired because they had the business and marketing experience necessary to turn the Institute into a profitable enterprise. This created:

  1. Lots of unproductive discussion about business and ministry being at odds. (I am convinced that they don't have to be.)
  2. Lots of pressure on non-business folks to produce wild business successes. 
Not fun. And ultimately, not successful. 

5. Know What You Do Best, and Sell it.

On the one promotional video we made in the entire decade of 2000-2009, Dr. Del Tackett famously said, "There's something about the Institute that defies description."

It was true. And that was the problem. There was no elevator speech. We couldn't articulate in 30 seconds what we uniquely did that was worth paying for.

All of the best things about us were not a product that people wanted to buy. So once worldview education became widespread and the economy limited what people would pay for as part of their college experience, we didn't really have anything to sell. Even though we had a lot to offer.

One could argue that three months in the house that Dobson built was a product that middle-aged mothers were willing to pay for, and that's what sustained the Institute through its profitable years. That's kind of weird and wild, but whatever. It is what it is.

At some point, Dr. Dobson ceased being a money maker, especially among millennials. And then, we really needed to have something else that was clearly valuable to college students. Something they were already looking for before they knew anything about us. And we didn't have it. Or, at the very least, we couldn't describe what we did have in a way that was compelling to our audience.

Help Me Out Here

So there it is: my take on why the Focus Leadership Institute closed, at least from a practical perspective. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. And that's why I think it's particularly important to reflect now, when the clarity of time and distance can help us become wise. 

I'm interested to know if others who were there have additional thoughts. And I don't ask for this very often, but let's have that conversation in the comments below instead of on Facebook, so that the follow-up can become part of the resource. Please just observe the boundaries I mentioned above: keep it helpful; no blame; and confine the discussion to the Institute without mentioning what Focus could have or should have done. 


  1. Lindy... here is your requested post to make sure the comments are working. I may or may not have time in the next fews days to post some of my thoughts.

  2. And I really like your idea of the professors cutting loose some of their material!

  3. Looks like my other comment didn't make it....about the value of an online presence to lure students and then to retain their voices in the conversation afterward.

  4. Great post. I didn't know about the decline that happened. It is hard to imagine. I think your ideas are great for many organizations and churches too.

  5. Your comments are very accurate. Several attempts to Innovate the program were ignored. The primary reason was the absence of enthusiastic or visionary support from the CEO and COO. Without Senior Executive ownership, program sustainability is unlikely. This has been true for multiple high impact programs within the organization.

  6. Thank you for sharing your insights about something that was important to you and many others. Also, thank you for sharing your insider insights in a respectful and honorable way. My input is this, and you allude to this in point #5, but what about the fact that millenials do not buy into the version of Christianity that Focus on the Family and FLI promote? What about the inability of right-wing conservative groups to stay relevant in an ever-changing world? I suppose that's the real reason that FLI tanked. The philosophies were antithetical to change. In fact, at FLI (or FFI as it was called when I attended in Spring 2003), most of what we learned was apologetics to help us defend - and never change - our worldview. My critique of FFI/FLI/FotF extends to the brand of Christianity promoted by so many of the old and weary groups of Christians that are struggling to stay above water. It's not a matter of making yourself "profitable" in a business sense - it's a matter of recognizing that as the world grows and changes, if you don't grow and change with it, you'll be left behind. Thanks for reading and considering my point of view.

  7. I'd been hoping for some kind of practical explanation like this post for why FFI ended. I was there in 2000 and have incredible memories and friendships from that semester. I will say that later when I worked with a college ministry full-time, it felt hard to know how to give the students I worked with a way to understand what the program had to offer. I shared my own experiences, but felt that there wasn't a good way for them to search it for themselves online. I'm so sad to hear that FFI has closed. Definitely feels like the end of an era.

  8. Money. That is always what it comes down to. I was a part of the Fall '96 semester. The third semester of the program. But I am a far different person than I was then. I learned about the Christian worldview, but then I went to seminary a few years later and learned about just being a Christian and what social justice looks like. FFI failed because the institution got too involved in the politics of the day. They forgot about the care for the poor, the outcast, the ones that were unloved. FFI tried to make everyone a good conservative Christian, ready to fight in all spheres for the cause--the Republican cause. I rejected that once I started thinking for myself. I am the most liberal evangelical Christian imaginable these days. And once I started thinking for myself, I refused to support Focus anymore. Maybe there are not many alumni like me, but I know there are some who are even sometimes reluctant--dare I say, ashamed?--to admit they were ever a part of such a program. Once the money slowed to Focus, this program was on the block. I can't support a program that alienates. Many people outside of the Focus world see it as a divisive, cold-hearted entity. Lack of love, pursuit of money, dividing communities and families--even if FFI didn't do those things, it was backed by a organization that did. That's my opinion, but one that I have been thinking of all on my own.

    1. Cheers, friend. I too am one of those who discovered social justice after I left FFI. And I too am one who is reluctant to admit I was ever part of such a program. However I am never ashamed of who I am, and being part of FFI was part of the journey that has shaped who I am, so I can say without a doubt that I am not ashamed. Thank you for your insights.

  9. Found out what happened to others. In choosing "Google account" for commenting, it erased my post as it signed me in. So maybe try first to publish a tester, and then your actual post. I will write mine again later!


  10. Ok, second go:

    First: I always wondered why it seemed that FFI's relationship with Christian colleges was underutilized. I attended a Christian college, but heard about FFI from Christian radio. I know that many Christian colleges allowed the credits to transfer for electives, and some for major coursework. While I know that a value I benefited from my semester is not having a majority Christian college students, it at least seemed like a consistent pool to draw upon. If you could count on revenue from half the attendees regularly coming out of healthy relationships with Christian colleges, it gives some breathing room to focus additional marketing on secular institutions. I think FFI could have remained a viable domestic off campus study partner for many Christian colleges.

    Second: In response to A. Lin. I think that the program changed somewhat since your time in '96. While I know that some of the attendees from my Fall '04 cohort were not great 'fits' then, and some became differently aligned in their values after, we all appreciated the dialogue from our semester. There were a lot of shared Scriptural values. And the areas of disagreement were encouraged. I never felt like professors were heavy handed. What also contributed greatly to the "grey matter" were the student life staff. As young adults, they were moving on in the conversations, and were open about their thoughts on faith, justice, and politics while we did life together (ahem, Lindy). I felt like this brought a sense of balance to the program, as we deliberated academically so many issues that our churches didn't prepare in us, but then also say our mentors and friends in the student life staff grappling with them in an even deeper, more meaningful way as they raised their families, committed to churches, voted, etc.

    That's all. Thanks Lindy for contributing yet again to valuable conversations.

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