In the for-profit world, the board chairs at the highly successful organizations have long tenures.  The stability in leadership provides the organization with many benefits.  One of the many benefits is that there is a consistent answer to “Why does this organization exist?”

Nonprofits often have term limits that force the board chair to change hands often.  Those nonprofits have two choices.  The first is to allow the answer to “Why?” to frequently change.  The second is to assign someone else to be the keeper of the “Why?”

Let us consider the reasons “Why?” is important.  Everyone needs to know “Why?”  For the staff, knowing “Why?” helps them make decisions, set priorities, align their interests with your nonprofit’s interests, create and pursue goals, and have context for each circumstance.  In other words, when the answer to “Why?” is consistent then less management skills and time are needed, more management time can be directed toward strategic issues, and the staff is able to perform at a higher level.  Continuity provides a boost to sustainability, staff retention, and your nonprofit’s effectiveness.  The consistent answer to “Why?” provides the same benefits, to a different degree, for your other stakeholders and your community.

In other words, the answer to “Why?” creates context and gives meaning to anyone’s engagement with your nonprofit.  It ensures that everyone is pulling on the same rope, at the same time, for the same reason, and in the same direction.

If you wish your nonprofit was running smoother, ask yourself if a more consistent and universal understanding of “Why?” would be helpful.

While the way the answer to “Why?” is presented must constantly evolve, the answer itself should remain a constant.  The answer is more than a paraphrase of the mission statement, although the mission statement is the starting point.  If the answer is going to provide context it must be much broader and deeper than the mission statement.  The answer must take all of the guesswork out of interpreting the mission statement.  It must also be more than a collection of slogans.  Carefully chosen slogans help to reinforce the message.  It must also demonstrate to everyone that there is value for them being associated with your nonprofit.  It needs to be a story that has a beginning and demonstrates that it is an endless commitment to the future (there never will be a last chapter).

If the content is changed with each leader, the variability makes it difficult for anyone to fully commit to it and by extension to your nonprofit.  Therefore, there must be one person who is the keeper, defender, and sponsor of the “Why?”

Next Step:

Create a definitive answer to “Why?” that will work for everyone

Be passionate about your answer

Share it with a cross section of stakeholders

Modify it so that every stakeholder will find it compelling

If your board has term limits, your nonprofit’s executive must be the author and keeper of the answer.  While the average executive turnover is high among nonprofits, the turnover rate is misleading.  Nonprofits with a concrete answer to “Why?” have executives with long tenures.  Having an answer will probably extend the tenure of your current executive.

The history of your nonprofit proves your answer to “Why?” is sustainable.  Strengthening the support for your nonprofit’s answer will increase the sustainability of your nonprofit and increase the perception of the relevance of your mission in your community.

Take It Further:

Make your answer to “Why?” intentional and formal so that everyone (donors, staff, volunteers, board members, etc.) can be held accountable for making it obvious and easy for everyone to experience

Make your answer to “Why?” less than 1,000 words (long enough to answer the question, short enough that people will take the time to read it)

Make your answer to “Why?” compelling (emotional appealing, logical, serves a higher purpose, and provides an immediate benefit for the reader) and easy to remember (sticky)

Consult with your board before changing the answer to “Why?”


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