Nobody starts a nonprofit or mission driven organization because it feels good (they’re way too much work for that). We start our organizations because we see a problem and decide to do something about it. The key word here is do. We are people of action- we have to be- otherwise we never would have started an organization to begin with.
This orientation around action is a good thing. It means that we are resilient, agile, and resourceful. But an interesting thing about this tendency towards action is that over time, it starts to isolate us. We become so focused on the doing that we lose touch with the thing that all this crazy work was based on in the first place – we lose touch with our why.
Most of us think we already have a why and that it lives on the about page of our website under mission, vision, and values. Mission, vision, and values are very important to the heart of an organization, but they are no why. A why is deeper and more elemental than any mission or vision statement. A why is your raison d’etre, the force that drives you, and most importantly, the thing that connects you to everyone else.
Whys resonate – missions and visions don’t.
The thing about your organization’s allies (supporters, beneficiaries, and potential partners) is that they don’t usually have clearly articulated personal mission and vision statements. What they do have is a deep feeling towards a cause or issue. This passion can be engaged by communicating a why that resonates.
At Good Done Well, we developed our why out of our creation story: We started the company after years of working with nonprofits and seeing that the work they did was only fulfilling a fraction of its potential for impact. This wasn’t because they weren’t working hard (on the contrary, they were exhausted), it’s because they weren’t effectively communicating about the impact they were creating. We wanted to change that- we didn’t want to create our own nonprofit solution, we wanted to strengthen and expand the good already being done. Good Done Well exists to multiply the good being done in the world. Our why doesn’t explain how we multiply the good in the world, or what will happen as a result of our work (those come later), it simply gives a reason for our existence. It embodies the three elements of the why: it’s simple, it’s clear, and it’s relatable.
The 3 Elements of Why: Simple, Clear, and Relatable
First and foremost, your why should be simple. As with most things of great importance, it’s really easy to overcomplicate our why. We start to think in terms of all our stakeholders, what would the board want, what our donors need to see, how we actually serve our community… all of these things are important, but they’re not our reason for being. Your why should be one sentence (not a run on), avoid words over three syllables, and capture the soul of your work.
Once your why is simple, make sure that it’s also clear. There are certain buzzwords that people love in the for-purpose space. Words like empathy, empowerment, and sustainable are everywhere and because of that they have lost their weight. In addition to their ubiquity, these words can be incredibly vague. It’s better to use a less sexy word that more clearly illustrates the soul of your organization. If you really feel that one of these words is what fits best, take a moment to dissect the word. Why is that the best word? Look it up in the thesaurus and the dictionary and see if there is a simpler, more straightforward way to communicate the meaning of the word.
Influence is ultimately about building relationships and creating community among your beneficiaries and supporters. Relatability is the final element of why. Think about your why from the perspective of the community being served by your organization, the people who provide the resources to keep it running, and unrequited allies (the potential partners you’re looking to reach). Think about what all of those people have in common. Your why should be deeply meaningful to all of those different stakeholders- it should be the thing that unifies them. When your why resonates, people begin to feel a connection with your organization and your work- a connection that is the foundation of relationship and community building.
If we can distill the passion that drives our organizations into a simple why statement that becomes the core of our communications, we can then relate to people in a new way – a way that enables us to connect with depth and grow these relationships into a passion driven community – a community driven by a common why.
Case Study- re:imagine/ATL
Embodiment of the Why Element
Re:imagine/ATL is a startup nonprofit working with teens in Atlanta. When Good Done Well first sat down with their executive director, it didn’t take long to figure out that they were doing something amazing, but it did take us a while to figure out exactly what their work was and why they were doing it. Quite frankly, it took a while for their work to resonate with us.
We started working with re:imagine in December of 2016. Incredibly successful up to this point, they were now ready to reposition their organization for the “next level.” They were looking to partner with corporations like Vans, Facebook, and YouTube, and needed to rethink how they told their story. We kept hearing buzzwords from their team – especially empathy and empowerment - which aren’t inherently meaningless words, but their buzzy status made them empty to our ears (and hearts).
Then their executive director, changed the conversation and revealed her personal story. She admitted that this all started when she was working with kids at a different program outside of Atlanta and realized that she was approaching her work with an us-and-them mindset instead of one of community. She got really into “breaking bread” with kids and their families, which she sees as a fundamental element in community building. She also got really pissed off about most people’s idea of diversity. She realized that most programs extolling the diversity virtue were simply bringing together groups of minorities. This sparked a vision for what true diversity could look like among young people in her city. What would it look like for white, black, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, homeless, wealthy, conservative, progressive area teens to create art together?
We then saw her vision in action. While sitting in a giant room with a couple hundred teens and adults from all over Atlanta, we were able to understand re:imagine’s why. Their why is diversity. It’s bringing everyone together and creating space for us to develop relationships, so we can all experience the complexity of humanity. And that is a compelling story. Way more compelling than empathy or empowerment.
Armed with this new understanding of re:imagine’s why, Good Done Well was able to completely reimagine (sorry, I couldn’t resist) their pitch deck and presentation for potential partners. We cut out the buzzwords and replaced them with an immersive thought experiment that challenges society’s misunderstanding of diversity. The deck walks potential partners through accepted stereotypes and then proceeds to expose their ridiculousness and propose new solutions that feel innovative and inspiring.
By understanding the core of re:imagine, their true why, we were able to help them connect to potential partners in a much deeper way. Their why now works through both hearts and minds to establish a sense of greater purpose. Re:imagine exists to bring true diversity to communities through art and media. They are becoming a media company for the next generation. What at first was just another film and arts program for high school kids now feels like a social justice solution that has the potential to transform the Atlanta community.
Why figure out our why?
The funny thing about this Element of Influence is that most nonprofits we work with find it to be the least important, most annoying part of our recommendation at first. It can be hard to see the value of working with consultants to determine a why when there are campaigns to be designed and dollars to be raised. But, after working through this element, all of our clients are able to see how it ties into everything else we do. Without spending the time and attention on your why – everything else is going to feel disjointed and independent. A good why will tie all the elements of your organization together from programming to marketing to fundraising. Spending time on your why will also reignite your personal passion and help you to get excited about the immense power of your organization again.
At Good Done Well, our why comes from believing the potential of mission-driven organizations is barely being tapped. We are incredibly passionate about the good you’re creating. We want that good to reach more people and believe we can help with that. We exist to multiply your good – the good that you and your organization are doing on a daily basis.
We see you. We hear you. We love you.
With Gratitude - GDW