Sometimes a fish out of water brings the ocean with him. That’s the case with Steve Peifer, a former heavy-hitter with Oracle Corporation who left the corporate world for the other side of the globe and a new calling as a missionary. In less than 10 years Steve developed a ministry to feed 18,000 Kenyan children and ushers them into the 21st-century via computer skills training — all in the name of Jesus. Even CNN recognized that this is no ordinary missionary activity. They featured Steve’s work during their 2007 CNN Heroes Award Presentation. Steve’s use of available social media demonstrates what can happen when technology kneels in the service of the kingdom of God. This is his story.
In the late 1990s, Steve, his wife Nancy, and their two children left the fast-paced Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex because for them that world had changed forever. Nancy had recently given birth to their third child, a little boy named Stephen Wrigley, who had a condition known as Trisomy 13 — and as a result, died eight days later. Suddenly, the corporate fast-track lost its appeal. When a missionary friend invited Steve and Nancy to Africa, they went.
From his first days in Africa, Steve used the only communications tool he knew — email — to distribute a newsletter about the work they were doing. The emails were simple and only featured text, but 10 years ago the use of email itself was light years ahead of the way most missionary newsletters were distributed. The emails were 300-400 words long, they were well written, and they were easily forwarded. Steve’s friends in the corporate world read them and forwarded them to their contacts — people who had never met Steve but were moved by the compelling stories in his newsletters.
The Peifer’s ability to stay in touch with personal and professional friends may serve as a new paradigm for ministries to communicate effectively with their supporters. In the long-lost land of 1999, most communication from missionaries to their support bases back home consisted of homespun paper newsletters sent by snail mail. The information was communicated in black-and-white, print-only, hard copy pages that only the most motivated reader made time to read.
The ease of email distribution allowed Steve’s support base to grow from the very beginning. Of course, it wasn’t just the choice of email as the primary communication medium that contributed to success. The newsletters were compelling and each one conveyed true stories about real people, rather than the standard project updates, financial need appeals, or ministry reports. Some recipients began to archive Steve’s stories because the email medium made them easy to store and retrieve. As digital photography and email bandwidth increased over the years, future newsletters blossomed with color pictures and links that allowed readers to explore the work going on in Kenya.
Eventually, Steve was contacted by the Solution Beacon Foundation (www.solutionbeacon.com), the non-profit arm of a software specialty company, which offered to publish and distribute Steve’s stories in book form. The book, “Your Pal, Steve” (available on Amazon), introduced Steve’s email newsletter to a wider audience.
Many parents in Kenya cannot feed their children even one meal a day, so when forced between sending their kids to school or sending them out to find food, school loses. Steve’s idea was to link a guaranteed lunch with education. If a Kenyan mother is certain her child will receive at least one excellent meal a day at school, then school becomes the right choice. Once the program was implemented, dropout rates fell to nearly zero, attendance soared, and children received an education.
The second step in Steve’s plan was to make sure that the education the kids received would equip them for the 21st-century. Steve developed computer centers that were housed in used international shipping containers and powered by solar panels. Each center contained 8-10 laptops that enabled children to learn basic word-processing and spreadsheet skills — the kind of education that is useful anywhere in the world.
Obviously, a plan that ambitious required a good deal of financial support. Thus, the Peifer’s wrote about their work as often as they felt they had something to share. As they wrote, they did so in a way that was personal, conversational, and inviting. Nancy Peifer wrapped up their approach to writing his way: “We hope to come across as your next door neighbor, except our house happens to be in Africa.”
The response to these mission work dispatches has been remarkable. First, out of about 1,400 recipients, each newsletter generates 80 or more responses. Because of the immediacy of Facebook, Twitter, and email, Steve’s base of supporters can respond with a simple comment or with real substance. One regular reader headed to Kenya on his own dime because he wanted to produce a video about the work the Peifers are doing. Others respond with financial support, but also with whatever imagination they can bring to the project. Solar-powered flashlights, laptops donated by corporations, and even bags of Cheetos have arrived unexpectedly at the Peifers’ doorstep.
Compelling stories, colorful graphics, and an email distribution list that bypassed standard church targets in favor of businessmen and women all led to the visibility that attracted CNN. In 2007 CNN sent a video crew to document Steve’s and Nancy’s work for the aforementioned Heroes Award Presentation. In addition to one video produced by an impassioned supporter, Steve’s ministry now gained a second video produced by one of the top TV networks in the world.
Steve and Nancy are reluctant to acknowledge how unique their approach to communications really is in the context of the missions world, but it’s clear that the business world, indeed the world apart from the church, embraces communications strategy at a different pace and with a different paradigm. Most ministries would do well to re-examine their communications choices with an eye toward business methodology. For ministries, any medium that allows the message to be transmitted quickly and without substantial cost is one worth pursuing. Many of the Peifers’ current supporters have never met the family or been to Kenya, but receiving a forwarded email that told a compelling story drew them into the circle of supporters.
These days, Steve’s newsletters are also distributed on Facebook — where most of the under-30 crowd hangs out — to a group called African Kids Need Food Too, and on the Peifers’ website (www.kenyakidscan.org) in the form of blog posts. Again, he is reaching out to a non-traditional audience of potential supporters, many of whom would never sit still for a missionary presentation at their local church, if they even attend church at all.
To find out more about Steve’s work in Africa, you can visit the website or, if you’re so inclined, jump on the next plane to Kenya.
Read another inspiring Christian entrepreneur story here.