More Devotees, Happy Devotees: The Seven Stages of ISKCON Membership


Purchase-Funnel

Material researched and presented by ISKCON Online.

The diagram above is of a generic ‘Sales Funnel’ or ‘Marketing Funnel’ used in the world of business for many years to show how a customer flows through stages from initial awareness of a product to being an enthusiastic advocate of the product. Every business wants enthusiastic advocates, and that’s why its important to keep a potential customer moving from one stage to the next, maintaining and developing their interest and commitment all the while. You’ll see from the ‘funnel’ shape that the number of people exposed to the advertising is far greater than the eventual number of ‘advocates,’ and in between there’s several stages at which its easy to lose the customer.

This general flow from vague awareness to advocacy is also true of missions such as ISKCON, too. Its also true that it takes a lot of awareness creation – thousands of man-hours of it – to bring just one person to the point of ‘Consideration,’ and then a lot of personal interaction to bring them to the point of ‘Adoption.’ And, like any other business, we can lose people along the way.

How many stages are there in bringing a person from vague awareness of ISKCON to active membership? You can describe it in any number of stages, and the diagram above has six, but I counted seven. Here they are, with two things that happen at every stage:

  1. Seeds  – A. Vague awareness of ISKCON by indirect exposure through friends, family or media                                  B. Developing an interest in spirituality.
  2. Contact – A. Further awareness of ISKCON by direct exposure through street chanting parties, book distribution and/or festivals. B. Interacting with ISKCON members through meetings, chatting online or reading a book.
  3. Considering – A. Exploring personal interests. B. Enquiring and Comparing.
  4. Transforming – A. Opening up to change. B. Awakening of faith.
  5. Adopting – A. Beginning the practises of bhakti. B. Making lifestyle changes.
  6. Commitment – A. Accepting the parampara. B. Embracing the ISKCON family.
  7. Advocacy – A. Compassionate sharing. B. Missionary spirit.

The stages are similar to those a consumer would go through in adopting a physical product. First there is hearing about the product through advertising and verbal testimony; examining the product and comparing it with other similar products, considering whether or not to become a customer; trying out the product, and finally becoming a happy customer and telling others about the product.

It may be argued that faith cannot be compared to a physical consumer item such as a can of beans, because it is ‘an unflinching trust in something sublime.’ It is typically arrived at after a long series of intellectual considerations, internal adjustments and spiritual practise, yet the comparisons with observable consumer patterns are not inaccurate.

A person is attracted to the notion of bhakti after hearing about it, examines the concepts involved, tests it by meeting others who have adopted it and then experiments with the daily practises. After finding some satisfaction the person then moves toward ‘advocacy’ of bhakti – the compassionate sharing of it with others.

As a spiritual movement dedicated to increasing its membership, ISKCON’s purpose can be helped greatly by its leading members ensuring that all the natural stages in the flow are complete, and that aspiring bhakti-yogis can easily make a transition from one stage to another. Each stage requires a different kind of engagement with the new member, ranging from the initial conversations and personal example, through teaching of the basic concepts and practises, through to pastoral care and encouraging guidance.

ISKCON’s book distribution is legendary and immense in proportion to the size of its membership. Probably no other organisation can claim more voluntary teams interacting with the public on a daily basis. As a sales force it is unmatched in the business world. The movement’s membership involvement is also funnel-shaped because of the large amount of advertising and initial public contact conducted by the organisation. Thousands buy books, and hundreds of thousands hear the street chanting, and then progressively smaller percentages go on to become involved practitioners and advocates. This is a normal pattern for an organisation, particularly one with a very active marketing division.

To take a person through seven stages you have to make sure they have all the experiences that will gently take them from one stage to the next. Each stage requires its own knowledge and expertise, and it is therefore required that we divide up the responsibilities involved in each stage and make sure that someone is carrying them out. To fully capitalise on all the efforts expended by book-sellers, street chanters and festival-makers, and to ensure that as many as possible process through all the stages – not becoming lost along the way – ISKCON could examine carefully the other levels of its outreach, especially the stages where more direct, personal teaching and guidance are required. ISKCON wants to attract new members as well as retain the existing ones. A fresh look at how we help people in the important stages of consideration and transformation would be helpful. It would also benefit our movement as a whole to examine why members leave us, at what stage, and whether any changes are required in order to better care for our existing members.

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “More Devotees, Happy Devotees: The Seven Stages of ISKCON Membership

  1. Havi das

    Prabhu, this article is really nice! Thanks for your thoughtful research and constant contribution to Srila Prabhupadas mission.

  2. dhirabhakta

    May I humbly suggest the one size fits all approach doesn’t work, but getting to know the individual and developing firm friendships is more effective
    And that each initiated devotee should endeavor to be the example others can follow; the verity of devotee, different moods and strengths for me has always been iskcon’s strength.
    And the ability to accommodate such a diversity inspirational

    • Elizabeth Wittig

      Haribol Dhirabhakta – I thought of you when I read this article and here you are making just the sweet comment I would expect of you. Organizations always seem to forget we are individuals, although the first devotees couldn’t have been more individual if they had tried!
      Elizabeth

  3. Anonymous

    Its really helpful to see varying stages in this way. Thankyou for writing it and sharing it . Ys Stavavali dd

  4. Zoltan Ptolemy

    Interesting points Prabhu..
    although not on the main point of your article,
    I do have a few questions for you.
    Understandably, as an organisation matures it will take inspiration from contemporary sources more readily.
    but do you feel the current trend towards corporate ideology mixed with cultural conservatism within Iskcon is a positive direction.?
    Maybe an organisation like Iskcon should (especially in western countries) also be looking toward more radical sources for inspiration, such as Grassroots Socialism or western Islamic organisations.?
    I believe Iskcons founding acharya was (next to his contemporary`s) quite radical and outspoken in his approach
    and his Initial followers were mainly disaffected youth, who saw eastern philosophy as the radical alternative.!
    Does Iskcon run the risk of making the same mistake as its predecessors by effectively submitting to mediocrity.?

    • You’ve asked some very interesting questions Zoltan; questions that any organisation must ask itself in order to be protected from internal weaknesses, so I’m answering them one at a time:

      Interesting points Prabhu..
      although not on the main point of your article,
      I do have a few questions for you.
      Understandably, as an organisation matures it will take inspiration from contemporary sources more readily.
      but do you feel the current trend towards corporate ideology mixed with cultural conservatism within Iskcon is a positive direction.?

      An organisation passes through different stages as it grows. The original purpose of the organisation – the set of principles on which it was founded – have to stay the same but, if it is successful, it can become more complex as more members join and contribute their skills and resources. The current trend in ISKCON for intelligent organisation is merely an overdue response to its increased size and diversity. If the organisational principles serve the original purposes then it is a positive direction for the organisation to move in.

      The way that ISKCON organises itself in countries where it is nearly 50 years old and quite established must be fit for purpose. There is no point in employing systems and structures that are more suited to an informal pioneering network of small religious communities. That was fine during the organisation’s early years, but in many countries the movement has changed much since that time and strategies and systems must keep up with growth.

      Maybe an organisation like ISKCON should (especially in western countries) also be looking toward more radical sources for inspiration, such as Grassroots Socialism or western Islamic organisations?

      Yes, I agree.There is no bar on which type of organisational design ISKCON adopts provided it is appropriate for the local circumstances. In many countries the way ISKCON organises itself is similar to a grassroots political movement. We are always open to suggestions – but they must be effective and in keeping with the founder’s original purposes.

      I believe ISKCON’s founding acharya was (next to his contemporaries) quite radical and outspoken in his approach
      and his initial followers were mainly disaffected youth, who saw eastern philosophy as the radical alternative.!
      Does ISKCON run the risk of making the same mistake as its predecessors by effectively submitting to mediocrity.?

      Yes, of course. ISKCON has, and probably will, ‘submit to mediocrity’ in various locations under pressure from less radical members or external forces of change such as popular opinion or political climate. But as long as the radical nature of Krishna consciousness is preserved it will survive and prosper. I’m using the word ‘radical’ in the following sense: ‘of or going to the root or origin; fundamental.’

      Our founder taught a radical spirituality and, as you say, local disaffected youth responded favourably. But he had plans for his fledgling movement that would take it far beyond its beginnings. The first questions for groups of people when they join together for any reason are: What are we here to accomplish? How can we do that through co-operation and skill-sharing? How can it be done in the minimum time?

      If the early days of an organisation – or an organisation with multiple branches – is successful, people remain members and work in such a way as to attract other members. Certain laws of complexity and communication then determine the way that the organisation behaves. Its not wrong, just different due to the increase in size. The beliefs and actions of those with faith will always be radical because it draws them to think and act with a different set of priorities than the majority. We need people to be genuinely radical because Krishna consciousness is a call for us to deal with a set of core realities and an urgent need to find genuine spiritual experience through meditative practise. As long as this is there, the organisation will be radical, and successful.

      • zoltan ptolemy

        While i have no doubt this society is the best vehicle to bring about real change in peoples lives.
        My involvement with it has left me with misgivings.
        and often leads me to doubt it, and myself.
        yet voices like yours remove my misgivings
        and silence my doubts
        and for that prabhu
        i thank you

      • I remember the first time, aged 17, that I met the devotees of Krishna. I liked some of them and others I did not like. I was confused by that, and felt that if everyone was following the same way of life there should have been some uniformity. I should have liked everyone in a spiritual movement. But somehow I decided to stay for a while, despite it being time for me to go back to school to finish my courses and exams. I wanted to wait until I saw Srila Prabhupada, and then to make my decision about the Hare Krishna movement based on him.

        He came seven months or so later and it was then that I decided to ‘join the movement.’ Over the years I have also thought about ‘leaving the movement,’ but I always wake up the next morning, having given myself time to make the necessary internal adjustments, and ‘join the movement’ once more.

        So you could say that I am genuinely a devotee of Krishna because of Srila Prabhupada. I certainly did not ‘join’ because of an institutional structure or an organisational system; there are so many other better run organisations for me to choose from.

        Once when Srila Prabhupada was asked what political system was the best for human society he gave a surprising reply. He said that any system was good if Krishna was at the centre. Communism was good if Krishna was at the centre, capitalism also. The point of any society – big or small – is to gradually elevate all of its members to the level of pure consciousness.

        I have lived through the ‘communalism’ of ISKCON, an organisation made up of small, mainly inward-looking religious communities. Although there were great times, that was not the ultimate manifestation of the founder’s wishes. His plans were much bigger. These days I am much more interested in looking to the future than dwelling on the movement’s past. So grass-roots activism or well-oiled religious institution – I think we need both of them to get the job done. And the job is to deliver dynamic spirituality to whoever needs it, wherever they are.

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