Go out of business, talk to a kindergartner and other steps for getting to WHY 

Published by Jocelyn Harmon on

Budweiser is bringing friends together. Chevy is keeping America rolling. And we’re all trying to keep up with the Kardashians.

For-profit brands just get it. Driving big sales is all about telling us on the most visceral level WHY we can’t live without them.

It’s no different for nonprofits.

If I’m going to invest my money to change the world — and I am — you simply must show me the impact we can achieve together. That means knowing, with absolutely clarity, why you exist.

In recent years, many nonprofits have heeded the call to step up their marketing. For example, Share our Strength is now No Kid Hungry; and based on recent news, it’s pretty clear that ACLU’s mission is to do whatever it takes to protect our human rights. Note that while both charities could wow us with their strategies and tactics for impact —  complicated litigation, food access, sophisticated distribution channels, etc. — they don’t lead with that. They first inspire us with WHY.

Unfortunately, I see too many nonprofits still struggling with this charge. A simple question —  “What do you do? — yields a complicated or vague answer. “We bring people together.” “We empower parents to be their best.” “We do policy advocacy on behalf of critical issues facing people in poverty.” YUCK!

This lack of clarity is the death knell for fundraising, especially with millions of nonprofits competing for the same dollars. We’ve simply got to do better than wishy washy platitudes and complicated jargon.

Here are my suggestions for getting to a clean and crisp WHY

Go out of business. One of the ways to get super clear on your value (or lack thereof) is to close up shop. Do this figuratively (first). Specifically, have a discussion with your team about who will benefit and who will lose when your mission is accomplished. This will help you focus on your value. It will also help you to gain clarity on the hero and the villain in your organizational story.

Talk to a kindergartner. Explaining your mission to your favorite 6-year-old is a great device for getting clear on why your work matters. Pro tip: At CFED, we asked our founder to write a letter to his granddaughter. His prose about WHY he started our organization was beautiful, simple and clear, and it deeply inspired our donors and staff.

Have a baby. Sometimes you actually have to step away from your work for a while to see it clearly. And it’s not just the stepping away that matters, it’s the deep engagement in a new or different task. Inspiration and clarity appear in the strangest places.

Go to rehab. Some organizations are too broken to fix and we need a serious time out. Resign. Take a sabbatical. As Andy Stern, former CEO of SEIU, so bravely said, “Unexpectedly to many, but very logical to me, if you can’t figure out where you’re leading and organization, it’s pretty hard to get up every day and go to work. So I resigned.” Obviously, leaving your organization is a BIG decision, but it is the right and responsible choice if you’re a senior leader and cannot see the path forward.

Write the Pixar Pitch. Pixar has an elegant and deceptively simple framework for nailing the WHY of your work. Fill in these blanks.

Once upon a time:

Every day:

One day:

Because of that:

Because of that:

Until finally:

Competition for philanthropic funds is fierce. If you don’t know why your work matters, no one else will either and you are not going to get investment. Worse, your lack of clarity, all but ensures that donors will not fund you at scale.

Use the suggestions above to nail the WHY of your work and the money will follow. It’s a simple and hard as that.




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Jocelyn Harmon

Jocelyn is the chief philanthropy officer at CFED, a think and "do" tank based in Washington, DC. She leads CFED's development team and helps engage major donors, corporations, foundations, and government agencies in closing the wealth gap and ensuring that all U.S. families, particularly families of color, can achieve their financial dreams. Visit www.cfed.org to learn more.


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