Raise More Money by Focusing on Why


One of my favorite TED talks comes from Simon Sinek who uses the examples of the Wright Brothers and Tivo to demonstrate how leaders can inspire action by starting with “why.” Want to know what the Wright Brothers and Tivo have in common? Take a few minutes and watch Sinek for yourself.

(Cue Jeopardy Music)

For those of you who skipped the video, Sinek says that “people won’t remember what you do, they’ll remember why you do it.” Maya Angelou had a similar saying that “people won’t remember what you did, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.” So make them feel.

Sinek draws on psychology and neurobiology research that says the brain’s structure focuses more attention on emotional messages (the “why”) than logical messages (the “what”). Recent fundraising research also found that people make giving decisions emotionally and then use logic to justify their emotional response.  

If you pay attention to advertisements, you will find more and more of them focusing on the “why.” A national pain reliever does not tout its features, but rather sells “headache-free days that you can spend enjoying life with your kids.” A national hotel chain does not sell its amenities, but “a successful business meeting after a good night’s sleep.”

These examples come from sales. What can nonprofits learn from these examples?

Identify your ultimate outcomes rather than what you accomplish. Your organization does not collect unused food and distribute it through community organizations (yawn); you assure that no child goes to bed hungry (exciting!). You do not offer 2 hour tutoring sessions three days a week to failing children in Local School District (yawn); you assure that all children in Local School District have the skills to succeed in school and life (exciting!). It may take some time and brainstorming with your staff, volunteers, and board to identify these ultimate outcomes, but take the time. In fact, ask them why they work with or for your organization. What draws them? I bet their answer will reveal your “why.” That will likely draw others.

Talk about your organization in terms of your mission not your programs. Once you identify your ultimate outcome, use that in all of your talking points and fundraising appeals. Draw a picture for your reader or listener of how the world will look when you accomplish your mission. Do you know what the American Cancer Society promised your donation would provide in a recent campaign? Not educational materials. Not support. Not even research. Birthdays. Your donation to the American Cancer Society gives those fighting cancer more birthdays. How simple and eloquent. And compelling. And beautiful. How do they give birthdays? With educational materials, support, and research but that comes secondary in their messaging.

So find your organization’s “birthdays” and use that to talk about your mission. Once you have them hooked on the why, you can then provide the details that explain how you accomplish that goal to demonstrate your competence. But hook them with the “why” first.

How can you begin to think about your organization’s mission by focusing on the why not the what?