COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. 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.
"This generation, Gen Y and even Gen X, they are skeptical," said Motte Brown, 39, who oversees the Boundless 'zine as family formation ministry manager. "They've been marketed to their entire lives, so they look to their peers, and they reject anything with an authoritarian tone. They are looking for truth, but look to their peers for that."
Brown acknowledges that hunger poses a challenge for an institution founded on one man's vision. Young adults on the online forums revere Dobson, he said, but also want to hear each other's voices.
The ministry also is customizing content to adapt to an on-demand world, said Glenn Williams, 44, a senior vice president. Dobson's radio show is now available through podcast, audio-stream and video-stream. The ministry's movie reviews, one of its most popular products, can be delivered by text message.
An initiative called "My Family" allows Web site visitors to customize their home pages. The flagship Focus on the Family magazine was too general for the times, so now five versions based on different life-stages are published.
"Focus for a long time took a shotgun approach: Let's throw out a topic today and talk about it, and if it touches someone's heart, we'll respond," Daly said. "Now, people are just too busy. They say, 'I don't have time to find it. I need you to feed it with me.' ... That's a huge change between the leadership (at Focus on the Family)."
The group also is trying to forge stronger relationships with churches, offering a new curriculum called "How to Drug-Proof Your Kids" meant to be shared in small groups at churches.
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. "In general, I think they would say, 'I appreciate that you stand up for righteousness and Biblical values."'
Under IRS rules, nonprofits such as Focus on the Family can spend a limited amount of money on lobbying and issues advocacy but cannot get involved in candidate races. In 2004, Dobson spun off a new political arm called Focus on the Family Action, which has supported social conservative Republican Senate candidates and held voter rallies.
As evangelicals struggle to coalesce around a presidential candidate, Dobson has been at the forefront, most recently pledging to vote for a minor-party candidate if Democrats and Republicans nominate an abortion rights candidate.
Corwin Smidt, director of the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., said Focus on the Family in the post-Dobson era will likely struggle to mobilize people politically and not only because of the absence of its famous founder. Smidt said developing niche products might give people what they want, but it also makes it harder to unite people around a political cause.
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."