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A couple of news items grabbed my attention a few days ago. But it was more for what they didn’t report than for what they did.
The first involved a veteran CEO’s report to the stockholders of his big company. “Times are good,” he was able to report truthfully. The consensus in the room was that the economy is good and that the new tax laws are favorable. But then, conceding that there were also a few dark clouds on the horizon, the executive stopped short of what seems to me might have been a very helpful analysis.
The company is the Kimberly-Clark Corp. The good news/bad news messenger was Tom Falk, head of the giant manufacturer of paper products like Huggies, Kleenex, toilet tissue, and countless other consumer items. He knows his business, and that is so partly because he also knows his customers—at least up to a point.
Included in Falk’s report was the assertion that Kimberly-Clark’s marketers are likely to find fewer and fewer of their traditional customers in the years just ahead. Indeed, the picture is sufficiently grim that Kimberly-Clark will soon be cutting at least 5,000 jobs worldwide—or about 13 percent of its 38,000 personnel.
An unexpected decline in the U.S. birthrate has caught consumer product analysts by surprise.
Obviously perplexing to Falk—but not quite perplexing enough—is that American women are having fewer and fewer babies. We’ve been headed that way for some years, but an unexpected decline in the U.S. birthrate has caught consumer product analysts by surprise. The Wall Street Journal reported late in January that the United States had hit an all-time low in 2016, with 2017 pushing the birthrate even lower.
But both Mr. Falk, and the Journal in its extensive report on the dip at Kimberly-Clark, seemed to ignore the obvious question: Is there anything we can do to stimulate and enlarge a market that for a decade or more has been headed toward shrinkage?
Thoughtful people may well disagree on the answer to that question. Some are of the opinion that such a flat line of no growth probably wouldn’t have happened if the United States had continued to welcome immigrants in recent years in the same way it had for most of our country’s history. Such immigrants would not only add to the number of people already living here, but most of them would tend toward having bigger-than-average families. More market possibilities for Kimberly-Clark.
The U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile, argues that it’s not immigration, but fewer women giving birth that has reduced and shrunk the size of the American market. The bureau says that babies born in the United States account for almost four times as many net new Americans as do first-generation immigrants—a claim that obviously rests in part on the birthrate among those usually productive immigrants.
The whole discussion about immigrants, though, does nothing but divert attention away from the real cause of market shrinkage. Just how do any of these specialists and analysts pretend to be serving up an accurate explanation of market shrinkage when they never mention the reality of abortion numbers? Americans may debate the morality of so-called “abortion rights.” But even those who argue for those rights don’t deny the fact that already more than 900,000 babies disappear every year. What might make CEO Falk gutsy and courageous enough to point out that grim statistic at the next stockholders’ meeting?
And one more suggestion for Mr. Falk, if he’s serious about finding all those missing persons. I remember when I was little and saw a big family at a restaurant or a school. The automatic assumption back then was that these folks were Catholics. That assumption became less and less accurate through the years. When my own children were little and saw a big family at a restaurant or a school, we all assumed these folks were homeschoolers. If Kimberly-Clark’s market gurus could identify the next group of big families, it just might be the difference between a profit and a loss.