Are you answering the right questions if you don’t want to bore people?

Published by Matthew Sherrington on

Where do most non-profits tend to start when it comes to telling their story? They start with themselves. “Who We Are”, or on their website “About Us”. And then they move on to “What We Do”, a description of the activities or themes they work on. More about “me”.

But people generally aren’t interested in you. They are interested in the cause or issue they are passionate about. They are interested in the difference they can make. So it’s not about you. And starting with the Who We Are and What We Do, keeps you talking just about yourself. Me, Me, Me.

Why should you care imageOnly later, if you remember, or if you’ve given your poor listener time to ask a question, might you go on to the Why – the nature of the problem, and why it matters.

Who we are? What we do? Why it’s a problem? Wrong questions. And in the wrong order.

Here are the right questions to ask yourself and to answer, in the right order that will make your story much more interesting, passionate and compelling.


Why do we exist? What’s the problem, the scale of the need? Why is it wrong? This matters because you want to engage people so that they will help solve something. That means you need to tell them about the problem to reveal the gap that only they can plug to put it right.

Why does it matter to me?  Why do you care, why do you do it? Presumably you have an idea of what things would look like if everything was put right – a vision. And you are motivated by values, principles, and beliefs. We’re in the game of humanity and justice, the emotions of compassion and anger.  Wearing your heart on your sleeve and backing it up with a bit of head if you need to. Connect with your audience emotionally and connect with their values, by sharing yours. If they don’t share yours, the chances are you just won’t have much in common and they won’t be that interested in you anyway.

Why What HowWHAT

What do we achieve? (Pay attention, this is not What We Do. That’s just listing the activities that keep you busy and checking them off as outputs when they’re done).  The answer to this question is the difference you make, the benefits people experience and feel. Yes, it’s the Impact question.

Too many people in the world don’t have access to clean water. That’s a bad thing. People fall sick and die as a consequence. Water pumps and taps provide clean water. Yippee – that’s the activity and output, and a great thing they are too. The impact is better health, freed-up time for children to go to school and get an education, time for women to do something else to earn a living, and so improve their families’ well-being. Water changes everything.

Disabled children are stuck and isolated at home. A wheelchair, and the chance to go to activity groups, gets them out. That’s what you do, and the output. The impact is independence, friendship, confidence, self-worth and having fun like every child should. Carers in the family get a break too.  A wheelchair sets a kid free.


How do you do that? (This is the old “What We Do”, but framed differently). This is the water pump or the wheelchair. It’s not the main focus anymore; it’s how you get to What you Achieve. It’s even an afterthought, to answer if you’re asked. (“Oh, yes, if you’re interested, we provide these things, deliver services that way, use our expertise to work with and influence governments so more people get what they need”). There you go. A lot happens behind the scenes. Take people back-stage if they are interested. Otherwise, make the main thing the main thing and keep it in the spotlight.


Why us? (This is not About Us or Who We Are). Why You? If you’ve got someone hooked on the problem, the vision, the difference they could make, and they still need a bit of reassurance that you’re the real deal and not some  dodgy charity, and that you can really deliver the goods, then yes, Why You? What makes you special? What’s your record of achievement? What’s your reputation? You are being asked because they want to trust you.

People don’t care about you, they care about the cause. So don’t start with you, finish with you, (if you have to). Better still, finish with the supporter. “It won’t change without you. What could you do?”

So, ask yourself not Who, What and Why?  Ask Why, What and How.  And then ask. By then, they’ll be hooked.


PS. You should have watched this Simon Sinek TED Talk on Start with Why by now. If you haven’t, shame on you, Do it NOW.


Matthew Sherrington

Matthew Sherrington

Matthew consults and coaches through his consultancy Inspiring Action with charities big and small, in the UK and Internationally. He has over 25 years’ experience of charity fundraising, campaigning, communications and leadership, including being Fundraising Director at Greenpeace USA, Communications Director at Oxfam GB, leading a creative agency. He’s a committed conference speaker, blogger and charity trustee. His guiding principle is inspiring people to action, through communications and leadership, with a particular passion for supporter engagement and organizational effectiveness, aligning strategy and culture behind an exciting mission story. Follow Matthew on Twitter at @m_sherrington


Paul Delbar · August 14, 2014 at 16:52

This aligns nicely with the magic sales triangle, the three questions you need to answer for a potential buyer/donor:
1. why (do something about this) ?
2. why now (what is the urgency or opportunity) ?
3. why you (why you are the best partner to achieve success together).

    Matthew Sherrington · August 14, 2014 at 22:06

    Thanks Paul,
    Absolutely, there’s little that’s completely new, but the basics need dusting down from time to time and given a current twist, don’t you think?!

@CharityNikki · August 14, 2014 at 19:16

Love this! Shared immediately with my team and included that TED Talk in our next team session.

Makes so much sense. Thanks Matthew

    Matthew Sherrington · August 14, 2014 at 22:03

    Thanks Nikki,
    the TED Talk is a classic. I’ve been doing a lot of work recently with charities on their story-telling. It seems simple, but it’s surprising how easily organisations fall back on talking about themselves. Partly it’s because some find impact hard to articulate, partly it’s because they worry too much about differentiation. Suppress that ego!

Kate Simpson · August 18, 2014 at 12:55

Thanks Matthew perfectly timed.

    Matthew Sherrington · August 21, 2014 at 10:28

    Intriguing! What are you up to?!

Margie · September 10, 2014 at 21:56

Back it up with a bit of head????? Perhaps you would like to reframe that.

Joel Preston · September 11, 2014 at 18:59

So, so true. Even better than Simon Sinek’s TED Talk is his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. The TED Talk is a good overview, but the book is chock full of concepts that can be directly translated to our donor identification, cultivation, solicitation, and stewardship processes. Good read!

Are you answering the right questions if you don’t want to bore people? | Print my recipes · August 15, 2014 at 18:00

[…] Are you answering the right questions if you don’t want to bore people? […]

How to kill boring fundraising | Print my recipes · September 10, 2014 at 06:00

[…] 101fundraising Blog has a helpful series of questions that can help you avoid being boring: Are you answering the right questions if you don’t want to bore people? […]

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