For Impact


Too Many Nonprofits Exist to Exist

On Change in the Social Sector | | Nick Fellers

And I think that’s a problem. Don’t you?

Maybe an org was founded by a passionate person with a grand vision 25 years ago. Now the M.O. appears to be meeting the operating budget or finding the next grant.

Why do you [org] exist? We don’t return to this question often enough – if ever. We do strategic planning — which means nothing if there is no clear purpose.

  • The french have a wonderful term for this – Raison d’etre. Reason for existence.
  • If we don’t know our purpose, how can we evaluate our progress toward an end?
  • In the for-profit world this answer is answered more often – but still not often enough. However, when cash flow gets tight we find a way to look at the big questions.
  • Sequoia Capital (big VC) thinks this is THE MOST IMPORTANT QUESTION for ANY company: “Summarize your company’s purpose on the back of a business card.”

This is a big question that impacts:

  • Funding: Your funders what to know WHY. Not WHAT. Knowing your CAUSE also helps to identify funding sources.
  • Morale: Maybe if we did a better job of connecting to this on a regular basis we would not have such a high turnover rate. I believe people get into nonprofit jobs with a sense of purpose then lose it – and move on.
  • Board meetings: Again, without a WHY there is no framework for high-level dialogue.
  • Real Impact: If we don’t know where we’re going we’ll wonder aimlessly

Some questions to help drive clarity:

  • Why do we exist? (on back of napkin)
  • What is our cause? (again, simply)
  • What would we do with $100B? In other words, don’t focus on money for a second. Look up and out. This question is so much more productive than ‘What are our strategic goals for next year’.
  • What are we best in the world at? (via Jim Collins)

I believe this is THE question that has forced foundations to ask for mountains of data, reports, crap, etc. Unfortunately, they’re just not doing a good job of asking the question — and to be fair, we’re not doing a good job of giving the answer.