PERSPECTIVE- Nonprofits: Focus on your impact, not your effort!

by Lou Golden Many years ago, I attended a marketing seminar and learned a simple, yet powerful, concept that helped guide me as I led a nonprofit organization.

The instructor, discussing the differences between features and benefits, pointed out that while hardware stores think they are selling drills, customers are actually buying holes. Marketers, he advised us, waste their time advertising features when they should be touting the benefits.

In the nonprofit world, that idea translates into: Focus on the outcomes you create rather than how you create them. Results matter more than process.

Consider this: Many nonprofits stress the size of their organization, the dedication of their staff, the creation of a new strategic plan or the amount of money they raise each year – rather than the impact they have in the community.

Some nonprofits even have crafted mission statements that focus on what they do rather than the what they achieve. I have seen plenty of mission statements that read like this: “Our agency is dedicated to providing services that aim to improve lives and remove barriers in our community.” A better mission statement would be:

“Our agency improves lives and removes barriers in our community.”

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that donors don’t fund nonprofit organizations. They fund outcomes. The nonprofit is simply a vehicle that connects a donor, who has a certain intention, to an outcome that fulfills that intention.

A donor, for example, may want to ensure that people in our community do not go hungry. Rather than trying to figure out how to get meals to hungry people on their own, the donor gives money to a local food pantry that has programs to feed the hungry. In that way, the food pantry connects the donor to the outcome he or she is seeking.

Simon Simek, an author and social scientist made famous by five books and one of the most popular-ever TED Talks, puts the same idea a different way. He urges leaders to “start with the why” -- in other words, first understand the reason your organization exists. Once you’ve done that, you can move on to easier-to-ascertain topics like what you do and how you do it.

Shouldn’t that be the natural order of any communication? Doesn’t your most powerful message have to do with your impact rather than your efforts? Won’t all of your audiences – your donors, your volunteers, your board and your staff – be most moved by a discussion of your higher purpose rather than your capabilities?

It’s easy, as a nonprofit leader, to lose sight of this. It’s hard to see your organization as “a vehicle” that simply produces outcomes that the community needs and that donors want to fund. But once you start seeing your organization in this way, it’s easy to put “the why” first and to imbue all that you do with it. So, for example:

  • The stories you tell as you seek to build donations, gain volunteers, fi nd board members and build your brand should always focus on the difference in the community you actually are making.
  • Your board needs to be, first and foremost, mission-focused. Before you fi ll them in on what you expect them to do (whether it be the size of a personal donation or a requirement to attend all meetings), make sure they are passionate about your organization’s ultimate purpose. Otherwise, they will never be the zealots you need them to be.
  • Do not bog down the speaking portion of your special events with lots of information about what you do and how you do it. Streamline galas, receptions, and golf banquets by focusing only on your impact.

Your guests will be both delighted and motivated.

Last piece of advice: As a leader, experience the outcomes first hand – and do it often. Carve out time on your schedule to see your programs in action, talk to the people you help, watch your program staff at work. It will inspire you – and ground you in the reality of your purpose.


Lou Golden is a consultant focusing on leadership, strategy and communication for nonprofit organizations. He was president and CEO of Junior Achievement of Southwestern New England from 2002 to 2016. Previous to that, he was a journalist, a newspaper company executive and a marketing professional.