Is your non-profit good at the Why-How-What?

TED TalksA few days ago I bumped into a non-profit friend who had recently viewed a TED Talks video on YouTube featuring Simon Sinek titled “How great leaders inspire action“. It was obvious to me that this was a TED Talks video that I needed to view because it had inspired her to take action. Not only was she talking to everyone about what Simon calls the “Golden Circle,” but she had also shared the video with board volunteers as a precursor to a strategic discussion.

I think there are three things that make this video so contagious and easy to watch:

  1. The idea of the “golden circle” is easy . . . What-How-Why.
  2. These ideas are woven into many non-profit professionals’ DNA.
  3. The speaker does a nice job of relating What-How-Why to other companies and their successes (e.g Apple)

Early in the video Simon says,

Every single organization on the planet knows WHAT they do . . . Some know HOW they do it. Whether you call it your differentiating value proposition, you proprietary process or your USP . . . But very, very few people or organizations know WHY they do what they do.  And by WHY, I don’t mean ‘to make a profit’. That is a result. It is always a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organization exist?

I’ve done a lot of strategic planning over the years. I’ve also done lots of tactical planning. And Simon hits on a super powerful idea with his What-How-Why.

what how whyThose organizations that excel at strategic planning have a very clear understanding of what they do, how they do it, and why they exist. However, those organizations that are little fuzzy on these ideas do a lot of wrestling with themselves. Sometimes countless hours are spent at the 50,000 foot view talking about these issues . . . and for good reason! Without clarity on What-How-Why, there is no way you can set goals, develop objectives and write action plans that are meaningful in any way, shape or form.

Some of you might be scoffing right now and asking, “How in the world can a non-profit agency not know ‘WHY’ they exist? It is as simple as revisiting their mission statement!

Well, not so fast, my friend. There are at least two situations that come to mind where this simple idea starts to get blurry.

  1. Some organizations have LONG histories and over the course of time their mission changes. For example, the March of Dimes was founded to address polio and today it exists to improve the health of mothers and babies. When this happens, sometimes the shift isn’t as clear as it was for March of Dimes . . . the ‘WHY’ gets fuzzy . . . and the challenges ensue.
  2. Some organizations experience mission creep because their resource development strategy wasn’t well-defined and board members let staff chase all sorts of funding opportunities regardless of what it was for or what they do. The end result kind of looks like a McDonald’s restaurant that also sells electronics and chiropractic adjustments. In short, the ‘WHY’ gets fuzzy.

I believe that good non-profits revisit the questions of What-How-Why on a somewhat regular basis. I applaud my non-profit friend for using this YouTube video to frame and stage an engaging boardroom discussion. If you have a little time today, I suggest you click-through to YouTube and view the video. If you like it, then forward it to your board president and have a discussion with them about its value. If you’re both excited and engaged, then share it with your board and talk about it as a group.


If you end up doing any of what I just suggested, please circle back around to this blog post and share your experience in the comment box below. We can all learn from each other.

Here’s to your health!

Erik Anderson
Founder & President, The Healthy Non-Profit LLC!/eanderson847

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.