Start with Why

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 21st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

I have frequently written over the years about the importance of understanding that for-profit practices are not inherently wise and good simply because they are part of the vaunted for-profit sector, and, alternatively, nonprofit practices are not inherently inferior.

Each sector has some of the right answers and/or best practices that could work equally well in the other.  We must stop automatically praising one and denigrating the other.  It is not, after all, a competition.  Each sector contributes to making our communities and our lives better.  We need trash picked up, roads and buildings built, secure places to deposit and invest our money just as much as we need preserved land, places to feed and shelter the homeless, learn new trades, pay tribute to art and culture, educational opportunities and more.

All too frequently, however, I feel as if I am blowing in the wind.  There seems to be so much mutual disdain on both sides of what appears, at times, to be a chasmic  divide, that it blinds us to seeing what we might learn from others.

Case in point:  recently, I have been doing a lot of thinking about and talking to staff and board members about fundraising.  I don’t know whether it is the end of the year and everyone’s thoughts turn to the final fundraising push (a ridiculous approach that I think we need to abandon), and there’s a lot of concern about fundraising transforming into a 24/7 activity.

I’ve also been doing a lot of work with groups on their mission statements.  The majority of people, when asked whether they “like” their mission statements, think their mission statements are good, will answer yes to both questions.  Yet, when I look at these mission statements, I think they are vague, unclear and leave me with more questions than answers.

There are four questions that a good mission statement should answer.  Most mission statements miss two out of the four—and one of those missed is, from my point of view, the most essential one to answer.  The four questions:

  1. What difference or impact are you trying to make?
  2. What are the categories of means you use to make that impact?
  3. On whose behalf are working?
  4. What sets you apart, makes you unique, vis-à-vis other nonprofits?

The first question is the one that is essential.  It answers the question of why an organization needs to exist, what would be lost if the mission were to disappear.  How often do you tell the story of your nonprofit, explaining all that you do and how you do it but never mention why you do it?  Solicitations, verbal and written, go on and on about all of the people fed, classes held, viewers attended, performances done, acres preserved, etc., but don’t explain the larger why for all of these activities.  While it is interesting to know your means, it is crucial to know the why.

Recently, I was asked by a very impressive high school senior to be part of the TedX event she was organizing at her high school.  She wanted me to talk about leading a life of passion.  She’d been inspired to select that topic by watching Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.”  Naturally, I watched Sinek’s talk.  If Sinek, talking 100% from the corporate world, doesn’t get you to understand the importance of the “why” in the nonprofit sector, then I politely suggest that you need to remove your blinders.

If you wish your organization—be it nonprofit or for-profit–to survive as an organization, you must be willing to look for the smartest advice and the very best practices, both built on solid research, regardless of side of the chasm you are on and from which side the information comes.  We all want the same thing:  success.




The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.