CDE project 18 sec­tion 3.2: action 3 — ask the ques­tion WHY do we exist?’

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 21, 2017

To maximise the impact of using people as channels and leveraging their social capital, whether they are donors or not, the organisation needs to have a clear compelling story that is used throughout the entire organisation. Everyone must be clear on your purpose or mission—your WHY.

The WHY is at the heart of your organisation. It is almost always emotional. It is your belief. 

As well sounding and feeling authentic, stories that are based on your WHY will have a consistency. That way as your story spreads—or ripples out—and you get inbound enquiries returning, the story someone hears has the same theme as the one that prompted them to get in touch. It enables you to communicate consistently. This is critical in a world where attention is now scarce. 

‘With consistency people will see and hear without a shadow of a doubt what you believe.’

Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek’s TED-X talk, ‘How Great Leaders Inspire Action’, explains the significance of understanding why you do what you do (Google ‘Simon Sinek, TED-X’). 

As well as providing a consistent basis for the stories you tell, and authenticity to your message, understanding your WHY has many other benefits. Here are some in the context of non-profits adapted from Simon Sinek’s book, Start with the Why, which goes into more depth:

  • Loyal supporters vs one-off donors

Simon Sinek explains how you can manipulate or inspire—both get similar results. Manipulations lead to transactions, not loyalty. Manipulations work (but not in the long term) and not a single one breeds loyalty. Whereas inspiration creates a ‘feeling’ we are in this together. 

  • Faster internal decision-making

With a clear WHY that staff understand, anyone within the organisation can make a decision as clearly and accurately as the founder, i.e. it potentially unleashes scalable gut decisions by the many. As a result, organisations get more out of fewer people and resources when they all fit around the original intention or WHY. Conversely, not knowing your WHY makes decisions harder. When in doubt we look at data, and customers tend to ask for quality, service and features, i.e. WHAT and HOW. Yet many decisions are emotional.

  • Attracting champions

As we want to be around people and organisations who share our beliefs, your WHY can help attract those that believe in what you believe. 

Of course, supporting a charity in some capacity, including donating, is a decision. It is the limbic part of the brain where emotion resides and where we make decisions. So, the very act of determining your WHY should also help people in their decision to support you.

Yet we have trouble saying clearly in emotional terms WHY we do what we do. We offer rationalisations that, although valid and true, are not enough to inspire others. Language resides in the neocortex part of the brain, whereas decision-making resides in the limbic part, along with feelings and emotion.

So although your WHY can be difficult to determine, you can see the effort and time to do so is likely to provide multiple benefits.

How to find your WHY

Every fundraiser, at any level, has the right to ask questions, like ‘Why do we exist?’ and ‘What is the problem we are trying to solve?’. Answering them will help you fundraise far more effectively and align the entire organisation. 

Having a problem to solve that inspires people has also been key to lasting fundraising growth.

‘Daring to believe’

In 2013, Professor Adrian Sargeant and Professor Jen Shang published the Great Fundraising report, commissioned by Alan Clayton, analysing charitable organisations that achieved transformational growth in fundraising. Alan Clayton’s analysis of its findings identified that a key factor was setting an ‘impossible dream’ or ambition. 

In all cases where charities achieved significant growth, they did not know a) how they would achieve their mission/ambition when they set it and b) where the money would come from. This has been born out with further action research with charities both in the UK and elsewhere. This approach is counter-intuitive to creating a strategy and working out its costs to provide a fundraising target that then has to be raised. The start is to set the ambition first—your WHY—and then work out how you do it. 

‘A passion for the work and daring to believe in what might be achieved was considered paramount.’

Great Fundraising, Professor Adrian Sargeant [11]

Charities, like entrepreneurial companies, should not be afraid of shooting for audacious missions and not hitting them.’

Jeremy Leggett – Chairman, SolarAid

Questions to ask: 

  • Why do we exist? 
  • What is our purpose or ambition? 
  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?

Answering these questions is not easy. 

Most organisations say WHAT they do or HOW they do it, but few articulate WHY they do what they do (check your own website—it probably has a section dedicated to what you do). Larger organisations have often diversified their programme and perhaps lost touch with their founding moment. Smaller and newer organisations may still be figuring out their true purpose or area of best focus. Yet it is easy to fall into a trap, as Matthew Sherrington explains:

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. Only 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.

Matthew Sherrington, 

101 Fundraising blog: Are you answering the right questions if you don’t want to bore people?

As your WHY is likely to be emotional, you cannot easily think it or rationalise it—you need to feel it! A clue will be in the stories that you already tell within your organisation. Or go back to your founding moment: what was the spark that started the organisation?

You need top level buy-in

This is not just a fundraising strapline. It is the organisation’s mission or ambition. It, therefore, needs the buy-in from the top. 

Take your time to get it right

It is worth investing time and resources to get it right, so it will inspire your supporters to spread your story as champions, in a consistent way, as it relates to your mission or purpose. 

Getting clarity on your purpose is a key building block before doing anything else. 

See also the case example of the NSPCC Full Stop Campaign included in Action 5, and the ambition it set as a result of the WHY it identified.

[11] Great Fundraising by Prof Adrian Sargeant and Prof Jen Shang.

Click on the image below to view project 18 in full - PDF format.

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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