When Your Market Is Your Mission

When you talk about products or product management, the conversation can quickly turn to gross margins, volume, average revenue per unit or how to achieve scale. While those metrics are important at for-profit companies, they are less important at non-profit organizations. Think of the Red Cross providing aid during a natural disaster, a nongovernmental organization drilling wells to ensure that villages have clean drinking water, or an organization that provides educational services to poverty-stricken areas of the world. Or, in this case: Compassion International.

The goal of Compassion International is to release the world’s poorest children from poverty. As I entered the headquarters in Colorado Springs, CO, I was struck by how different it felt from most organizations I visit. The lobby was filled with bronze statues of children playing. Everyone was smiling, and I felt a sense of family. This is where I first met Paul Anderson, director of IT management services, and Chuck Boudreau, IT product management advisor.

As we shook hands, it was clear that working with Compassion International would be unlike any of the profit-driven organizations I had previously trained. Pragmatic Institute provides training all over the world for organizations of all stripes. We’ve taught companies selling B2B enterprise software, routers and switches, B2C social networks, professional services, medical devices, specialty grain feed for livestock, light bars for police cruisers, and even pumps to drain septic tanks and porta potties. But none of that prepared me for what I was about to see.

Paul and Chuck led me into a small room off the main lobby that was set up to resemble the schools and homes of the families that Compassion International supports. I could see a small, one-room cabin with a rusted, corrugated tin roof haphazardly nailed together, the floor cramped with beds where a family slept. You could almost hear the rain dripping through the leaky roof and the cry of a hungry child.

Compassion International’s mission is to attack poverty on a global level. Unlike other organizations that directly fund poverty programs, Compassion International uses what
many in the for-profit world call an indirect or channel-oriented strategy. Specifically, Compassion International partners with more than 7,000 churches globally to serve more
than 1.7 million children.

Because Compassion focuses directly on affecting children in poverty, it creates a set of managed interventions, or precisely implemented support systems, that church partners in the field deliver to produce specific outcomes. Often, these interventions are packaged together into programs, similar to what for-profit companies call products.

The managed interventions and programs are more than a direct transfer of money to the child or family in need. They are designed to provide experiences and outcomes that money alone can’t provide, such as education, medical care, clothing, shelter, food and job training.

“One of the other things Compassion tries to do is give children their childhood back,” Paul says. “Part of the outcome we want is for children to be children; we want to give them hope.”As children grow in the program, they blossom physically, emotionally and spiritually. And they realize that they can have an impact on the world.

No one at Compassion is there for the paycheck. While employees certainly make a fair living, they could earn more elsewhere. What motivates employees is that they see a world where poverty is not just the lack of things but includes a subliminal message that says, “You don’t matter. Your parents don’t matter. You will never matter.” Working at Compassion, employees have an opportunity to see the results of their work at a personal level.

Of course, lifting children from poverty isn’t free. In many ways, Compassion acts as a responsible marketplace, connecting supporters in first-world countries with children in poverty-stricken areas. Most supporters contribute about $38 per month to support one child. Sponsors choose from a wide range of children who need support.

But Compassion International wants more than a monthly donation from its sponsors—it wants engagement, and the positive effects engagement brings.

“Our former president, Wess Stafford, was working on his Ph.D. at Michigan State and was doing empirical research on children who have gone through sponsorship programs,” Paul said. “One of the questions they asked was, ‘Did you correspond with your sponsor?’ They found a statistically significant correlation between those kids who prevailed
in life and those kids who had regular, written correspondence with
their sponsors.”

To stimulate the sustainability of its services, Compassion encourages a strong connection between sponsor and child. Sponsors can track the progress of their children in school, receive pictures of them as they grow, send pictures of their own family and exchange letters until the children reach 18 and age out of the program. At that time, other sponsorship options are available, like subsidizing college.

By listening to the market, Compassion has developed programs for sponsors who want a more immediate impact or more meaningful connection with their sponsored children. Sponsors may now designate funds for things like vaccinations. Because long-time sponsors report such a feeling of connection with those they help, the organization now arranges trips to the children’s home countries. This allows sponsors to volunteer, perform missions of their own and meet their sponsored children face-to-face.

A top priority of Compassion is to be a responsible steward of sponsors’ money and time while demonstrating the measurable impact of their products. The organization has enlisted external groups that audit and report on the efficiency and efficacy of nonprofit efforts, such as Charity Navigator. In fact, Compassion measures more aspects of its business than many for-profit counterparts. The organization tracks six key metrics:

Employee Engagement
Do employees actively buy into the organization’s mission?

Capacity Management
Can the organization deliver what it promises, matching needs with sponsorship?

Partner Relationships
Are adequate controls in place to avoid fraud and abuse in field programs and ensure that children are positively affected?

Sponsor and Donor Engagement
Are our sponsors and donors raving fans who will actively engage in meaningful relationships with their sponsored children and promote Compassion to others?

Child Experience
Do the children enjoy the experience they receive, and do they want to participate? If the children don’t want to be there, Compassion finds it difficult to affect them in a positive way.

Child Outcomes
What are the outcomes on the children’s lives? Is the model sustainable?

The day after my visit, I chose my sponsored child. Mariel is now 8 years old and lives in South America. Because of our sponsorship, her family can afford to provide her with good medical treatment and send her to school, instead of working full time. We’ve put her on a better trajectory, for less than my Starbucks habit each month. Every few months, Mariel writes us a letter. I grin as I read her big third-grade letters, so similar to the ones my daughter writes. I hope that she stays in the program. I hope that we will meet someday. I hope that her life is better because of me.

Compassion International embodies best practices of both a mission-driven organization and product management. Its use of key metrics not only ensures the responsible oversight of its sponsors’ time and money, but also supports the achievement of its core mission to mitigate poverty.

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