Monday, March 29, 2010

Teen Mania's Sustainability Problem

Free labor sounds like a great idea, and it often takes many years of dedicated service by volunteers before a non-profit organization can really grow large enough to start paying full-time staff members.  But when established non-profits like Teen Mania Ministries rely on free labor to run the majority of the organization, certain problems arise.  Usually, non-profit organizations have to report the salaries of administrative staff as "overhead expenses," and one of the things that most donors look for when giving to a charity is a low percentage of money being used for overhead, and the majority of funds being used for program expenses.

By relying on the free labor of interns to take care of the massive amount of administrative work that goes into running Teen Mania, the ministry is able to report very low overhead expenses which helps them raise more money, especially from larger donors.  The problem is one of sustainability...or lack thereof.  Donors expect organizations to get "bigger and better" each year, but they also don't like to see overhead expenses go up very much as a percentage of total revenue.  Teen Mania has indeed exploded in size through the years, putting on more expensive events and building more expensive facilities than ever before.  This means having to recruit more & more teens each year to join the Honor Academy and work for free to build the ever expanding Teen Mania empire.

Now, there is no problem with non-profit organizations needing to recruit volunteers to help with day-to-day operations.  The problem comes in when the "volunteer opportunity" is presented in a high-pressure setting, to vulnerable young people, and used as a measure of a person's level of spiritual commitment.  The vast majority of Teen Mania Honor Academy participants are recruited at a live event like Acquire the Fire or BattleCry. These events can be extremely emotionally charged and intensely spiritual...many teens have reported having their first real "crisis of faith" at Acquire the Fire conventions.  Enter Ron Luce, telling these emotional teens that they can find real purpose and meaning for their lives by coming to work for Teen Mania for a year.  That they will become Christian warriors and future great leaders by joining the Honor Academy.  That signing up is the ultimate commitment to God that a person can make during their teenage years.  They're encouraged to pray about it, to consider it, and (of course) if they have any inkling at all that they might want to join the Honor Academy, to talk to a Teen Mania staff member (usually a current intern).

The truth is, the Honor Academy isn't a great place for every teenager, and sometimes God has other plans for someone's life.  Though, you definitely wouldn't know that by talking to a Teen Mania staff member or reading the Honor Academy marketing materials.  Teen Mania has to recruit a certain number of teens each year just to be able to make ends meet and fulfill all their vast commitments. Huge events are planned years in advance, and not having enough staff to produce them when the time comes is simply not an option--there's too much money at stake.  This creates a high-pressure recruiting environment where the needs of the organization are placed above the needs & well-being of individual teenagers.  The Teen Mania recruiting staff have quotas to fill, and need to get a certain number of teens to fill out Honor Academy applications at every single event.  Slick videos and brochures present a very one-sided view of the Honor Academy, and the pressure to "just fill out an application and make a decision later" is very high at Acquire the Fire & BattleCry events.  Teen Mania knows that if they can get someone to fill out an application, they can keep marketing the program to them after the event, and a certain percentage will eventually's a "numbers game."  Ultimately this is how Teen Mania Ministries meets its recruiting quotas.

Unfortunately, a lot of teens get caught in the crosshairs of this numbers game.  Teens end up feeling guilty, or like they are not good Christians, because they do not want to participate in the Honor Academy.  Other teens end up abandoning long-held, well-laid plans to attend college or start a career because of a promise that the Honor Academy will make them closer to God or help them "find their purpose."  Some teens' families go into serious amounts of debt to keep their children in the Honor Academy when donor money dries up or when the ministry convinces the intern to stay for a second (or third...or fourth) year.  If a teenager starts the Honor Academy and decides it isn't for them and wants to leave, they are made to feel like they are breaking their word and letting God down.

Teen Mania has grown so large that, in order to maintain the size of the ministry, these are the "necessary evils" of recruiting and retaining a workforce.  Teen Mania can't substantially increase their number of paid staff members without raising overhead expenses and alienating donors.  They can't afford to lose any donors because the events they produce are so expensive.  Free labor is the gasoline that keeps the Teen Mania machine running, but unfortunately, ensuring that the Honor Academy is a positive experience for an ever-increasing number of teens is an unsustainable prospect.  This is becoming increasingly apparent as more information about the Honor Academy becomes public, which we will explore in future posts.

1 comment:

  1. I think sometimes you hit the nail on the head better than some of us that are impassioned from our own experience ever could thank you for this!