Aligned Incentives: Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Aligned Incentives: Getting Everyone on the Same Page

December 16, 2019 by

I am working with several nonprofit organizations regarding the alignment of incentives in a way that gets everyone pushing and pulling toward shared outcomes, rather than competing or unwanted results.

An Example of Misaligned Incentives

One missions organization is working hard to recruit, train, send, and care for more and better missionaries to some of the most difficult-to-reach people and places on the planet. One little problem: This missions organization has no incentive to get more missionaries because they receive no additional funding when they do. No additional funding means they must grow without any means to scale or sustain. All of the funding for this organization comes from a supporting institution that allows for the missionaries to leverage 100% of their fundraising. The supporting institution does not increase its funding to the missions organization—it has been fixed for many years.

So more missionaries hurt this organization because it means they have less money to recruit, train, send, and care for the ones they already do have on the field — what a mess.

Properly aligned incentives would work to get the missions organization, missionaries, and the supporting institution all working toward shared outcomes.

Misaligned Incentives in Daily Life

Perhaps an example that hits closer to home would help. For the most part, the digital devices we spend so much time with day and night are competing with the outcomes you and I would want for our life. Our rationale for getting a smartphone may have been to stay better connected to friends and family, access a few entertaining apps to kill time, or be a little more productive on email when slacking. But it’s clear that the more time we spend tapping, swiping, viewing, and scrolling, the less we are fulfilled by the time we just gave to whatever it was we just did on our phone.

In general, the device and app makers want us spending more time with them while we want our time with those devices and apps to be more productive, entertaining, efficient, etc. Those are misaligned incentives. UNC Chapel Hill Professor Zeynep Tufekci makes the point that e-readers (i.e., Kindle, Nook), are one of the rare examples of a device that aligns with our incentives. E-readers are for books, and that’s about it. I want to read more books and the maker of the e-reader wants to sell me more books. Those are aligned incentives.

Misaligned Incentives in the Church

And now let’s look at how it works (or doesn’t work) in the church.

Examples of potential misaligned incentives for church communication:

Incentive Outcomes for Congregation Outcomes for Leadership Outcomes for Comm Team
Christmas Campaign Festive, spiritual, family Increase attendance Original! Award-winning!
Email Newsletter Brief updates only Disciple people Clicks, engagement, forwards
Sermon Series Teach the Bible Bring someone new Thoughtful, artistic, engaging
Kid Church Environment Disciple our kids Safe, welcoming, fun Creative, catchy, cool
Facility Signage Helpful, easy Inexpensive, informative Branded
Volunteer Orientation Be a part Engagement, giving, groups Be on message

None of the above incentives are wrong on their own. Each could be defended for good reason. But the problem is when the outcomes for the congregation, leadership, and communication team aren’t working together—or worse, work against each other. The best incentives are ones that get everyone pushing and pulling together.

Examples of potential aligned incentives for church communication:

Incentive for All  
Christmas Campaign Meaningful holiday celebration that people want to invite a friend or neighbor.
Email Newsletter Helpful secondary device to reinforce primary communication
Sermon Series Bring the Bible alive to more people in more ways
Kid Church Environment Disciple the next generation to love and follow Jesus
Facility Signage Direct people definitively
Volunteer Orientation Get more people giving of their time, talent, and treasure

How Do We Align Incentives?

When we started Church Marketing Sucks over 15 years ago, one of our guiding incentives was that we did not want to be a resource for people just looking to more butts in pews. We wanted it to be about putting Christ in hearts. Nothing wrong with attracting more people (growth can be an indicator of health), but if we went down the path of helping church communicators solely in their aim to attract, we would be participating in our namesake. Church marketing still sucks today because there are too many people, businesses, nonprofits, consultants, churches, and resources with competing incentives.

I am very aware that aligned incentive thinking is a twinge-worthy capitalistic mindset. But more and more, I am having less and less faith in our do-gooder nature to be about the common good. As a result, we need new ways to design our way to new defaults that get us to what is most important. As church creatives and communicators, may we bring agency and alignment to toward the outcomes of Jesus and his church.

Perhaps Paul says it best in his letter to the Ephesians—a letter to encourage believers to be fruitful followers of Jesus.

“Don’t waste your time on useless work, mere busywork, the barren pursuits of darkness. Expose these things for the sham they are. It’s a scandal when people waste their lives on things they must do in the darkness where no one will see. Rip the cover off those frauds and see how attractive they look in the light of Christ. Wake up from your sleep, Climb out of your coffins; Christ will show you the light! So watch your step. Use your head. Make the most of every chance you get. These are desperate times! Don’t live carelessly, unthinkingly. Make sure you understand what the Master wants.”

-Ephesians 5:15-17, The Message
Post By:

Brad Abare

Brad Abare is the founder of the Center for Church Communication. He consults with companies and organizations, helping them figure out why in the world they exist, why anyone should care and what to do about it.
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3 Responses to “Aligned Incentives: Getting Everyone on the Same Page”

  • Mahelia
    January 14, 2020

    Blessed day!
    I found the articles on your site very helpful in our ministry.
    Thank you for your generosity in sharing them.

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  • Just Testing
    March 9, 2020

    Sorry, just testing

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  • churchmarketingsucks
    March 12, 2020


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