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Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk How great leaders inspire action is one of the best presentations on organizational design you will see (without paying consulting fees). He proposes that a company should focus on why they’re doing something before telling people what they’re selling. However, for the modern nonprofit, I don’t think saying why you’re doing something is enough to maintain that organization’s sustainability. In fact, I would argue that most nonprofits are very good at the “why” and fall short on the “how” and “what” portions of their organization. I don’t think I am alone in this opinion.

Why? There are a number of reasons, but primarily it is because nonprofits have been seen as organizations that plug industry holes for profit-driven economies. As well, ask an economist and they’ll show graphs that demonstrate how nonprofits have maintained ~2% of GDP in donations for years. This demonstrates (in their mind) that nonprofits are intrinsically linked with the state of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and thrive only when economies grow and contract when they shrink. But I don’t think the modern nonprofit has to adhere to that paradigm. When thinking about funding, nonprofits could raise as much money as a for profit organization if they asked another simple question – why not? For example:

  • Why not link a product that consumers want to the mission we and society believe in?
  • Why not require an appropriate price to events, activities, and impact?
  • Why not build exclusivity into events and activities that can only achieved by supporting the mission?

Google’s CEO Larry Page is known for asking “why not” in situations of seeming absurdity. This has led Google to produce some pretty wild “moonshot” ideas as well as some pretty amazing ones such as autonomous vehicles. When he asks “why not”, he requires the individual to explain why it is scientifically impossible to successfully complete the project that could change the world. If they cannot, then Google often invests in the absurdity. This is not to say that every organization has the budget and bandwidth to chase moonshot ideas, but it does force us to reflect on how we each approach new ideas.

For nonprofits, the same can be true. In today’s blurred for- and not-for-profit lines and enhanced transparency, it is time to not only focus on the “why” but also on the “why not.” Specifically, CEOs should feel comfortable building organizations that Allen Proctor (Ex-Harvard CFO) calls “linking mission to money” and focus on building a dual business focused on maintaining your organization’s sustainability. Said differently, let the accountant focus on the budget while you as the CEO or CFO focus on the top line growth of the organization. What is the worst that can happen…you’ll raise too much money? (Note: I know there are legal implications, though solvable ones)

Today and every day, do not only ask why you are doing something, but also why you aren’t doing more. Should more kids have sustainable access to food, healthcare, and clean water? Why not? Should more blood be donated in the U.S. to support cancer patients? Why not? Dan Palotta told us all it was okay in investing in your mission. Susan G. Koman has demonstrated that investing in cause marketing works. TOMS Shoes and Warby Parker both demonstrated that for profit organizations can operate as or with nonprofits as part of their core mission.  Why can’t nonprofits operate as a business as well as a nonprofit?

These are musings from a for profit entity trying to further blur the line. Here at PwrdBy we are continually trying to hone our “why” and, at the end of the day, we realize we’re focused on leveraging for profit investment to drive impact. This comes in the form of asking business-case driven questions to nonprofit organizations. If you want to talk about “why not”, our door is always open.

Written by Jared Sheehan