** John Paul ‘J.P.” De Gance, founder of Communio
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There has been widespread agreement in academic and political circles about the importance of family stability in the lives of children and the country at large. There’s also been a sense of real fatalism about the ability do anything about it. Changing something as big and important as divorce rates seemed as plausible as changing the tide.
That is until a privately funded project – the Culture of Freedom – took a shot at the problem. And enlisted old and new methodologies to drive results that American communities across the country can learn from. And emulate.
The project, recently renamed Communio (communio.org), had a dramatic effect on the divorce rate in Jacksonville, Florida. And by not just by a slight margin. It plunged more than 25 percent over the last 3 years, a startling number. But there was even more good news from the Communio campaign: 120 plus churches boosted attendance by more than 20 percent over the same test period.
Their success is a rare silver lining in our social landscape. Few policymakers or pundits dispute the fact that the United States is suffering from significant social disintegration. It has led to the first decline in life-expectancy in America since World War I.
Recommendations for remedies to this national crisis have varied significantly, and often included addressing educational attainment, healthcare coverage, financial security and the like.
But the leadership at Communio took a different route, believing deeply that the greatest blind spot of policymakers and civic leaders seeking to tackle social disintegration was something as old as the Old Testament: marriage and family.
A robust field of social science suggests that strong marriages provide basic family stability, impacting a wide range of social outcomes as it imbues adults with meaning and moral obligation. Marriage positively influences health, incomes, social mobility, poverty rates, inequality, happiness, crime rates, and the physical, emotional, and academic well-being of children.
A handful of public initiatives were attempted in recent decades to directly strengthen marriage and families. They’ve been either ineffective or had, at best, a modest impact. Those that had some impact often lacked the ability to scale over large populations.
Enter Communio. Their approach was designed to scale, and built around the idea that religion should play an important role in any attempt to strengthen marriage as a social institution. Churches, Communio’s leaders asserted, can and must be a part of the solution because they represent, in almost every imaginable and measurable way, a real strategic asset. A substantive source of social capital and cohesion.
The relationship between religion and family has been well documented. Regular attendance at religious services is linked to strong marriages, stable family life, and well-behaved children; reductions in the incidences of domestic abuse, crime, and addiction; and increases in physical health, mental health, education levels, and longevity.
Communio’s goal in Jacksonville – one of three test markets – was focused on boosting one or more of the following outcomes: (1) the number of people getting married; (2) the number of people staying married; (3) the number of children being born into married homes; and (4) regular attendance at houses of worship. The fourth item, Communio’s leadership assumed, would promote and impact the first three.
How did they do it? To modern business leaders, the answers would seem familiar. Communio launched in 2016 with a supply strategy that sought to marshal the best content providers and flood the zone with strategic communication and messaging. In short, they branded the effort locally.
Communio moved in 2017 to foster demand in churches by better leveraging direct consultative services and the insights garnered from data analytics and market research in fields as disparate as retail marketing and politics. In short, Communio deployed state of the art modern marketing tools hereby ignored by churches in America to drive outcomes. Marketing practices that make it easier to identify customers and sell to them. And make it more efficient to scale businesses.
Once these changes were in place, the cost—both in terms of volunteer and financial resources—of enrolling individuals in marriage strengthening programming dropped significantly. This meant that more than twice as many people (25,000 versus 10,000 in Jacksonville) attended classes at 80 percent less out of pocket costs ($45 per person versus $261) in 2017 compared to 2016.
Data analytics was crucial to targeting those most in need. Just as large technology firms and recent political campaigns have used Big Data to target and change the behavior of consumers and voters, Communio used advanced analytical tools to assist groups already working to strengthen marriage and address various other aspects of social breakdown.
“Microtargeted marketing has long existed in the commercial world,” Communio Founder and President explained. “It’s existed in the political world. It is even used in the intelligence world. But in a lot of ways, the family and faith sector is still living, technologically, in the 1990s. This project is bringing it forward.”
Communio’s efforts helped propel these churches, already stretched by the demands of their congregations and the new digital age, into the 21stcentury.
With the assistance of these state of the art vendors and practices, Communio developed a predictive model that uses algorithms and various types of data to project how particular models of behavior and character traits might identify individuals most likely to divorce, become single parents, or react favorably to an invitation from a church – as well as those struggling with a wide range of challenges such as anxiety, financial stress, spiritual issues, health crisis, and substance abuse.
Churches could determine what activities were most useful within their sphere of influence – say a 5-mile radius – and then micro-target individuals for direct mail, online advertising, or social media outreach.
Jacksonville proved to be the most successful of three test cities, at least partly because of the effectiveness and focus of a local mobilizer. Live the Life, a Florida nonprofit dedicated to strengthening family life, played a crucial role here as mobilizer, consultant, content provider, and coordinator.
The results were impressive in reducing divorce rates—something no other similar initiative run and tested at the same scale can say. As an evaluation conducted by W. Bradford Wilcox, Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project concluded, “The efforts undertaken by the Culture of Freedom Initiative in Jacksonville appear to have had a marked effect on the divorce rate.”
These words should be shouted from every rooftop, as should the results of this effort by the leaders of Communio. Their work demonstrates clearly the combination of efforts and assets that can reverse the decline in marriage, and in other constructive social norms. And how the modern-day church can play a crucial part in the rebuilding of our families. And our communities.
“It is the church that played such a fundamental role in the great social movements of our country, from ending slavery to fighting the injustices of segregation,” De Gance noted. “And churches, we’ve learned from this test campaign, are best situated to help reverse the disintegration of the American family.”
Although much work lies ahead to refine and prove their model, Communio’s work is as innovative as it is inspiring.