Start With Why

Young children are inquisitive by nature.  Why are leaves green?  Why is the sky blue?  Why is blue the color blue?  They ask why in order to learn. 

According to Dr. Dawn Taylor, a Ph.D. in developmental/child clinical psychology from Penn State University, "'Why' is one of the most important strategies children have for connecting with their caregivers and learning about the world around them."

After 27 years working in the nonprofit sector, I believe that WHY is also the foundation upon which philanthropy is built.

Note that I did not say "What?" or "How?"  Those questions come secondary when proposing solutions to the myriad of issues that nonprofits are striving to solve.  Until we answer WHY we will never truly convert fundraising into philanthropy.

Fundraising has become a transactional process.  Nonprofits are good at it because they overuse it: direct mail, special events, wrapping paper sales, etc.  These fundraising techniques rely on one unique feature:  the least amount of personal interaction and engagement possible.  Monetary goals may be achieved, but usually nothing more has occurred than a simple exchange of goods, and to create donors who expect something in return for their "gift."  The exchange disguises any relationship.  Fundraising sells the "what" and the "how," and shortchanges the "WHY."

And we in the profession wonder why people don't connect and give repeatedly or feel the passion we feel for the cause!

Philanthropy, on the other hand, is all about the relational, connecting donors' generosity to something greater... their passion!  Philanthropy starts with the WHY.  It serves as the basis for long-lasting relationships that carry forward well beyond the "what" and "how" are expended.  Nonprofits that succeed in good and in bad times convey the WHY!

In his book, Start With Why, author and ethnographer Simon Sinek compares how certain companies and leaders excel above others, even if their products are relatively the same.  His theory is that great companies and their leaders start with WHY, which is "the purpose, cause or belief that drives every one of us and compels us to act."  Great companies know why they do what they do and inspire others to connect.  If people understand and aspire to your WHY, then they will support the great work you do and become steadfast relationships.

Here's how Simon's theory applies to your work:  "People don't give to what you do, they give to WHY you do it!"  

Connect people with your WHY:  ask them why they care, why they are interested and involved, and why your organization is there.  Inspire their passions, then connect them with what you do and how you do it.  By starting with WHY, donors become connected much deeper than can ever result from a fish fry or cake walk.

Don't be afraid to make philanthropy relational!  Why not?!

Allan Burrows is President of Capital Development Services in Winston-Salem and on the Center’s board of directors. 


Excellent message that Allan has given. After serving on NP boards for many years I have come to learn that this is exactly right. Communicate to your members and potential members WHY you believe in the work of the organization & the difference the org makes in the community or the state. Find ways to bring potential donors TO THE WORK to see the results. If you do it right, you'll hardly have to make the ask!

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