Lesson 1: Why do you exist?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be doing a series of posts introducing you to Claxon University’s new course, Words on a Mission.

Each of the twelve lessons in the course asks a fundamental question a nonprofit needs to answer in order to develop high-impact messaging. In each post, I’ll share what the question is, along with a snippet from the video lecture.

Lesson 1’s question is: Why do you exist? 

This 1:03 video gives you an overview of the course and explains why being grounded in your why is so important.


Meaningfully engaging with donors, corporations & strategic plans

Engagement--WAY more than a sparkly ring!

Last week could’ve been called Meaningful Engagement Week. Early in the week, I facilitated a board and staff retreat that focused on how to meaningfully engage with each other and a new strategic plan.

Thursday, I was at AFP Washington’s Symposium on Major Gifts where Bernard Ross of the UK’s Management Center walked us through how to use psychology, language and humor to meaningfully engage major donors. (That guy is Funny with a capital ‘F’! Whew.)

Then Friday, I found myself hypnotized by Tammy Zonker’s explanation of how she–and her talented team at the United Way of Southeastern Michigan–meaningfully engaged GM in revitalizing Detroit’s “drop out factories’, otherwise known as high schools. (Ouch, right?)

You’d think it’d be different to engage with a major donor, a corporation and a strategic plan. But when you got right down to it, the similarities outweighed the differences by a long shot. It really boiled down to this:

  • Be prepared: Know your donor. Understand what motivates the corporation (and the people who work there). Know the intricacies and opportunity costs of each strategic direction.
  • Sell impact: What will be different in the world if the donor donates, the corporation invests or the strategic plan works?
  • Focus on what you believe: Start with what you believe and then seek out the partners and strategies for bringing it to life. Not the other way around.

Setting the inanimate strategic plan aside and focusing on animate (and sometimes animated) interactions between humans, it’s interesting to reflect on the what makes engagement meaningful. It’s tempting to think it implies that each and every interaction needs to be profound. But that’s not necessarily the case. The impact needs to be meaningful, not necessarily each and every interaction that leads to impact. The interactions leading up to that impact vary dramatically from light touch–think Twitter–to in-depth–think one-on-one conversation. The meaning becomes clear when you look at the impact of all these interactions as a whole.

Whether it’s a donor, a volunteer, an elected official or a strategic plan, are you engaged meaningfully or just meaning to engage?



The Belief-o-Meter

Deep pockets don’t necessarily mean big gifts.

A deep belief in why and how your organization does its work is a much better predictor of deep engagement–volunteering, advocating, donating.

That’s why we designed the Belief-o-Meter. It’s a silly (yet seriously effective) way of reminding you to focus on your Believers. They are the ones who can–and will–help you advance your mission most dramatically.

If all this talk of believers, agnostics and atheists has you baffled (or offended!), watch this vid.  You’ll learn all about these three important target participants categories and also get a specific suggestion for how to use the Belief-o-Meter on a day-to-day basis.

Do you believe the Belief-o-Meter can help you achieve your mission?

Belief is a terrible thing to waste

profiles in courageOn April 25, 1944, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and others incorporated the United Negro College Fund. They believed that it was time to “reject the prejudices of the past and consider the inner person.” Their first fundraising effort garnered $760,000, which would be worth about $8.6 million today. In 1959, Sen. John F. Kennedy donated the proceeds of his book, Profiles in Courage, to the UNCF. In 1972, famed ad man Forest Long came up with what is perhaps the most widely recognized nonprofit tagline ever: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Why has the UNCF garnered such unbridled enthusiasm?

In our humble opinion, UNCF has attracted and retained loyal supporters because they have stayed true to the reason they created the organization in the first place–their belief that “it was time to reject the prejudices of the past and consider the inner person”. They have undoubtedly experimented with new programs, new messaging, and new ways to raise money. But their core belief has remained the same.

The articulation of this core belief is an organization’s Belief Proposition.

The for-profit sector focuses on Value Propositions. But in the nonprofit sector, our currency is beliefs, not value. (Note: Values are of course important to us nonprofiteers. That is different from value, with no ‘s’.) Belief Propositions are the philanthropic sector’s raison d’etre.

Your Belief Proposition answers the question: “Why do we exist?” Most organizations tell you what they do and how they do it. But very few tell you why. This is a huge missed opportunity since people engage with a cause because it speaks to their hearts, not their heads.

Don’t believe me?  Think of the organization to which you’ve given the most money, time and energy over time. Did you do that because you were struck by their admin to program ratio? Probably not. You might have seen that ratio and nodded your head in approval, but it wasn’t what inspired you time and again to engage. We engage because we believe in why the organization is doing what they’re doing and we like how they are doing it.

When you lead with why you believe, you build strong relationships with others who share your belief. This has been true for UNCF, as well as thousands of other organizations that, over time, have not just survived but thrived.

What does your organization believe?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?