Focus on the Family: Tim Tebow Super Bowl ad not enough to prevent more layoffs

This year, Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family got unprecedented publicity for a Super Bowl ad starring Tim Tebow and his mom. But the attention the soon-to-be-Broncos quarterback brought to the organization didn't attract enough dollars to prevent another round of layoffs.

FOTF spokesman Gary Schneeberger has the unpleasant numbers:

"On Friday, 110 folks were informed that their positions were being eliminated as of August 20, or in some cases later. The dates are staggered, and some of them will be working into December. That's less than 13 percent of our overall workforce -- and more than 14 percent were in management, including two senior executive positions."

The latter posts were deleted "as we move to being a $105 million organization," from one that was valued at $132 million last year at this time, Schneeberger continues. "We needed to match the infrastructure to what's reasonable for our current budget."

After these departures, the FOTF staff will stand at approximately 750 -- a far cry from its size less than two years ago. In an October 2008 post, we noted that the 46 employees laid off at that time brought the number of staffers to around 1,200. Since then, more than a third of this total is gone, for reasons Schneeberger says are hardly unique to Focus.

"Obviously, the recession's ongoing, and it still is having impact worldwide," he says. "A lot of people look at the macro-implications of that, but for us -- an organization that relies on donations -- the micro-implications are that people are having trouble with their own household budgets. In the past, they may have been able to give generously, but they're limited because of the economic downturn. And that continues to cause pain for organizations like ours."

Although the PR bonanza Focus experienced before and after the Super Bowl didn't inoculate the enterprise from such difficulties, Schneeberger continues to see the ad -- which found Tebow and his mom delivering an unexpectedly subtle pro-life message -- as a success.

"The purpose of the campaign was to do a couple of things," he notes. "One was to create across the country a pretty robust dialogue about the sanctity of human life, and it did that even before the commercial aired. And secondly, it raised awareness of Focus on the Family globally to the tune of up to 7 billion impressions -- that's our estimate based on the circulation and the readership and the viewership of all the places where the ad was shown or written about. People came to our website and saw the kind of organization we are."

Still, it wasn't a panacea. "Whether or not it translated into the economic realities we face -- into donations -- well, it would appear it didn't do as much of that as it might have been able to do if the economy was in better condition," he concedes.

Indeed, it soon became clear that more sacrifice would be necessary -- a truth some employees took very personally.

"About a month and a half ago, our board said we should aim for about a $100 million budget," Schneeberger explains. "And in the weeks that followed the announcement, about twenty people on our team came forward and volunteered their job to be among those to be eliminated. And I believe that speaks not only to the character of our team, but it speaks to their commitment to the mission of Focus on the Family -- and as a Christian organization, I'd say it speaks to their belief that God will continue to take care of them and find exciting things for them in the next chapter of their lives."

Not all of these offers were accepted, but most were, with gratitude. As Schneeberger puts it, "You don't read about that in corporate America -- not just people who are retiring, but people in the prime of their working life saying, 'You're facing financial difficulties, and I believe so much in the mission, and that God's got something different in store for me, that I'll do this.' That was truly heartwarming for us."

Because most of the cuts involve what Schneeberger calls "internal services," he believes FOTF will be able to help the same number of people it's now assisting, if not more -- and that's a good thing, since calls to the organization's counseling line are up 10 percent, with web traffic seeing a 30 percent increase. Besides, "while $27 million is certainly a steep budget reduction, $105 million is an awful lot of money for an awful lot of resources to help an awful lot of families," Schneeberger emphasizes. "We remain twice as large as any other marriage-and-parenting ministry in the world."

Even so, there's no guarantee that the bottom line will improve soon. "This fiscal year, we estimate that we'll bring in donations anywhere from $105 million to $113 million, and we're hoping that will be sustainable again next year," Schneeberger says. "But I'm not a economist, and [FOTF president and CEO] Jim Daly isn't an economist. We can't predict what's going to happen tomorrow, let alone over the next twelve, eighteen or 24 months."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts