COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) – James Dobson has become synonymous with the empire that is Focus on the Family. Tourists clamor for photos of the group’s founder when he’s not taping a radio show, talking about the presidential race on a TV news show or writing another child-rearing book.

Some staff confess to asking “What Would Dr. Dobson Do?” when faced with a dilemma.

But out of public view, a new generation of executives is laying the groundwork for sustaining the conservative Christian group as a cultural and political force once the 71-year-old Dobson has left the scene. And most of their efforts are concentrated not in the political realm, but in finding new ways to deliver marriage and parenting advice to a younger generation of families, many of whom distrust institutions or dislike evangelical engagement in politics.

Consider Jim Daly, the group’s 46-year-old president and chief executive officer. He shares Dobson’s conservative evangelical beliefs about marriage and the culture wars. But Daly is more likely to talk or blog about his troubled childhood or the challenges of raising his own kids, ages 5 and 7, than stage voter-registration rallies.

“With (Dobson’s) interest in public policy, we have quite a strong bicep in that arena,” Daly said.

But, he adds, “94 percent of our budget goes to marriage and parenting, the bread and butter stuff. We don’t have to reduce the muscle in the public policy area. We just need to start doing curls in the other area in the public square.”

Dobson stepped down as Focus on the Family president in 2003 but remains the board chairman and the ministry’s public voice on its flagship radio broadcast. While Dobson has not hinted at retirement, the board has been plotting succession for years.

Passing up a better-paying corporate job at a paper company, Daly joined Focus on the Family in the late 1980s and rose through the ranks. Daly is not heir apparent to the radio show because, he acknowledges, that isn’t his strength. He views himself as an administrator and delegator.

Daly’s public profile is growing, however, illustrated by the release of his first book, “Finding Home,” in which he describes growing up in foster care after the deaths of his alcoholic parents and the joys of raising his own kids. The message: Parents can consider Daly a peer rather than an authority figure in the mold of Dobson, a child psychologist.

That kind of peer-to-peer connection is central to Focus on the Family’s efforts to reach a younger audience. An example is a Webzine called Boundless.org that invites young adults ages 18 to 34 to talk to each other in moderated forums about everything from dating and courtship to the ethics of playing online poker.

Daly emphasized that Focus on the Family is not backing off its public policy work, and he said the renewed emphasis on relationship advice is not meant to blunt criticism that the group is too political.

But if the goal is to reach younger adults, downplaying politics might be wise. The Christian polling firm Barna Group found this year that nearly half of born-again Christians between 16 and 29 believe conservative Christian political involvement poses a problem for America.

Steve Maegdlin, another Focus on the Family senior vice president, said he doesn’t believe supporters view the group’s political engagement as a negative. “I don’t think there’s a disconnect with our constituency,” said Maegdlin, 41.

Already, Focus on the Family is discovering the financial implications of attracting a younger crowd. Maegdlin said that in the last year the organization has identified about 280,000 people who have been exposed to Focus on the Family for the first time through the Internet but haven’t donated.

The total number of donors has declined from 755,000 in 2004 to 564,000 as of last month, ministry officials said. Supporters are giving more money more often, but the overall numbers are still down: Focus on the Family brought in $132.5 million in donations in the fiscal year ending in September 2004 compared to $130.8 million this year, officials said.

“Those who grew up with Dr. Dobson are empty nesters now,” Daly said. “They might support Focus, but to a lesser degree. Our challenge is to engage the young family. And there are positive signs we’re on the right course.”



On the Net:

http:/www.family.org/

AP-ES-10-26-07 0003EDT


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