Of all the reasons why people and organizations don’t move forward in the way they desire, by far the most important one is this:

Lack of compelling “Why”

Why do you exist?

Why do you exist?

Many non-profit organizations focus on day-to-day task execution, and even try to fund raise, on the strength of comfortable familiarity alone. Alumni, stakeholders, constituents are asked to give because of nostalgia, team spirit, or a sense of affinity, rather than because there is a vital, specific and tangible vision in place for the future.

Worse, people are asked to give because of costs and expenses. But people don’t give to a budget, they give to a vision. I’ve heard people in board rooms give this as the Why: “Everyone needs to grow up and realize that we can’t spend what we don’t have.”

Being responsible about costs and budget management is NOT a compelling Why for the organization. That is because while a budget is an important tool, it is not the purpose of the organization to create a budget.

Why do you exist?

You must know why your organization exists. This is not about hanging a mission statement on the wall, so much as it is about doing the hard mental, emotional, and spiritual work of envisioning a future reality, and then acting in alignment with that vision at every level of the organization.

It is easy to assume that everyone knows the why of the organization. But try asking that question at the next staff meeting, board meeting, or Sunday service. You will likely find that although people are in a relative affinity about the organization, they will have trouble saying specifically why they are doing the tasks and objectives in front of them.

You must do the work of discernment to get to the underlying Why.

Getting down to particulars

You will find that a number of really big objectives are actually competing with each other for time, energy, and budgets, because they have at their core different “Whys.”

For example, a major charity has both food pantry support and cost-of-housing initiatives in its mission. When asked to articulate why they pay attention to these things, only a vague sense of “caring about people” is the answer. But there are a thousand ways to care about people. “We support families who are economically challenged and underpriveleged,” but again there are many possible ways to do that. Why is this particular way uniquely valuable for your organization?

It's the way we've always done it

A church committee or staff may be responsible for Sunday services, but when asked why they do Sunday services, they can’t give an answer beyond “That’s what we do. After all, what is a church without Sunday Services?”

“It’s the way we’ve always done it” is not an attractive Why, especially for new members, or those trying to assess the quality of an activity or service. When pressed, leaders may say that it creates community. But again, there are a thousand ways to create community.

The question is, In what ways do we create community with this specific activity, toward which specific ends, and for which specific people? Why is Sunday worship important in that regard? Maybe it isn’t as important as everyone assumes, or maybe certain aspects of it are about community while others are not.

You must take time to assess the Why at the heart of each of your organization’s activities.

What are you trying to create?

One way of approaching the question of Why, is to ask it a slightly different way: 

What are we trying to create?

“Well," the leader or member answers, "we aren’t really trying to create anything. We are just trying to survive!"

Or here is another common answer: “What we are about is culture change.”

Both of the above statements are too vague to be meaningful. Trying to survive is an urgent need, but what happens when you have survived? You need to think beyond the current urgent needs to the purpose of survival. Just trying to get by is not a compelling Why for the organization.

And in the second case, trying to change culture is noble, but a bit like trying to boil the ocean. Which aspects of the culture, applied in which specific contexts, involving which specific people, in what kind of interactions?

There is a spectrum here: just trying to survive on one end, trying to save the world on the other. We need to be somewhere in between with our Why. To be in the sweet spot, the Why needs to be larger than getting by in a mundane sense, but not so large that we feel disempowered to begin acting.

What can you - and only you - do?

Asking what you, and only you, can do will help you cull out a lot of extraneous activity.

What is it, asks Jim Collins in Good to Great, that you can be the best in the world at? It doesn’t mean you’re already there, but you have enough indication and evidence that with focused application, you could be better than anyone else at this one thing.

If you don’t know what it is that you, and only you, can do, chances are good that someone else is already doing it, and doing it better than you ever could. You will waste time and money, people-power and political capital, going after goals that someone else is cut out to do better than you anyway.

(Note: You’ll want to ask this "What can only I/we do" of both your individual, professional goals as well as your team and organizational goals. Within your organization, there are people whose tasks and time are being spent on things that someone else could do better. This is about strengths assessment, a topic we will return to in future articles.)

Connect the large and small pieces of Why

Let’s say you want to change the culture of your meetings. Laudable goal! But how does it connect to the larger Why

You may even be able to give an answer to Why: You recognize that the organization could build its capacity if you handled meetings differently. Changing how your meetings begin and end is a small way to address a low cultural expectation around meetings. 

But there is still a larger question. Why build capacity at all? Why have a different expectation around meetings? If you had more capacity as a result of better meetings, what is the result? More meetings?

The more specifically and vividly you can answer that question, the better.

Another example: What is the purpose of handling e-mail more efficiently? The ability to send even more e-mail? The same could be asked of any tasks you wish could be done more efficiently or productively. If it doesn't lead to a larger Why, it may only be accomplishing a short-term fix or easing your or someone else's anxiety.

Connect the small stuff to the big stuff, and help your team to do the same. The dividends you'll see in organizational performance are truly great.

Envision together to create ownership

You must think together beyond the first step, go out further than the immediate urgent things, envision a larger purpose being fulfilled. That will lead you in the direction of Why.

People don’t like to change their behavior unless they are forced (to escape pain) or they are inspired (because they can see a different desired reality very vividly as the result of the new action.) A clear Why will connects small actions to large ones in ways that motivate behavior.

If your team engages this process together, there will be a better outcome, because they will own the Why at the other end. If you pre-package and hand them a Why, they won’t have gone through the inner work that you did, and it will seem top-down.

Internal Whys are more motivating than external ones. That is why the more people can be involved in the process, the better. As they internalize the Why, it will act more powerfully as a motivator.

Two warnings

Warning #1: Some people are impatient with a process like this. They may say they just want to be told what to do. Or they may say they already know the Why because it is obvious to them, and why would anybody else think any differently?

Simply thank them for their feedback and move on to answering some Why questions in writing. See the links below under “Actions to Take.”

Warning #2: Some people will discover that the Why of the organization doesn’t fit them. They may need to find a different place to work or volunteer or serve. This is a sign of health, when people are able to make clear decisions about whether they are the right fit in an organization. In the moment it can feel like rejection or failure to lose a leader, staff person, or board member, but if they do not resonate with the Why of the organization, it doesn’t serve them or you to continue in that relationship.



  • Take 10-20 minutes and write down Why you think the organization exists. Have the rest of the team do the same thing. Share the results at your next meeting.
  • In your next meeting, use the resource tool “Why Questions” to help your team or your board discover the Why of your work. Communicate that finding a central Why for the organization will help in countless ways: better funding allocation, clearer messaging, more likely success with fundraising, and so on.
  • Work with your team to conduct listening sessions. What overarching Whys are hovering out there as reasons for your existence? Are there competing Whys? What assumptions are people making about each other’s reasons for doing what you do?
  • Check out Simon Sinek’s book, Start With Why. It includes many inspiring stories of real-life companies who went through a Why process and get consistently better results because of it.
  • Get personal. Review your own tasks and time spent. Do you know how each connects to your larger Why? Are there competing Whys in your own life? Which of these needs to have the most priority for the next 6 weeks?