The single most important lesson I ever learned.

Begin with the why.


If you don’t, you’re likely to work very hard and not achieve much of value.


Because you didn’t begin your endeavor by asking yourself:

“What’s the value in this work upon which I’m about to embark?”

“Why am I doing this?”

This may be the most powerful strategy in your entire toolbox.

So simple. So basic. So fundamental.

The often overlooked steps.

Yet it’s a step we tend to overlook.


Humans are funny creatures.

Monkey see, monkey do.

Monkey be told what to do, monkey do.

We’re driven instinctually, by biology, to survive.

Don’t eat the berries no one else is eating. We take what appears to be the safest course.

It generally works in the short term. There must be a reason.

Sometimes, however, there is no reason.

There’s just habit.

Or the reason isn’t a good one.

1. Know what something is for.

Answering the why question requires two elements: knowing what and who something is for. Let’s begin with the what.

Basic survival is clear. What do you accomplish by not eating eat poison berries? You don’t die. Beyond biology, things get more complicated.

Whether it’s a good letter…. email… brochure… report… website landing page… event… or anything else… depends on what you wanted it to do. Unless you know the answer to the why, what and who questions, you can’t do meaningful, effective or efficient work. Just work.

Nor can you evaluate the success of your completed work.

Which means you’ll be hard-pressed to improve it if you want to try it again.

Unless you know what your work is for, you won’t know why you’re doing it. If you don’t know why, you won’t know if your finished product answered the question (the one you neglected to pose). So you won’t be able to measure success.


 “I need a brochure.”


“My supervisor said we need one.”

“Okay. What’s it for?

“To recruit volunteers to drive seniors to appointments, grocery shopping and places of worship.”

“How many volunteers do you need?”

“About five new ones.”

“Oh, that sounds doable. We may not need to develop a whole new product to recruit this many folks. Could there be a more targeted way to find likely prospects than printing up a bunch of brochures? Who do you think are the folks most likely to answer your call to action?”

“Maybe current volunteers and donors?”

“Okay. Maybe to start we could send two separate emails to these different constituencies? Or have you tried incorporating a stand-out call to action in your volunteer newsletter? We could help you craft messaging that’s enticing and relevant to these target markets.”

“Sounds good. I hadn’t been thinking specifically who we would ask until now.”

2. Know who something is for.

Sometimes the customer is not who you think it is.

Or who your program staff think it is. Overseeing both fundraising and marketing for a complex human services organization, I often had program staff coming to me asking the development team to create some sort of communication for them. They tended not to look beyond their own internal needs as staff, rather than the needs of the constituents they served. Let’s continue with the example from a volunteer program.


 “I need a brochure.”


“My supervisor said we need one.”

“Okay. What’s it for?”

“To recruit volunteers to drive seniors to appointments, grocery shopping and places of worship.”

“How many volunteers do you need?”

“About 30 – 50. We have 100 – 200 seniors who need matches.”

“Okay, that’s a sizable number. Who is your target volunteer market?

“Hmmn… not sure. Maybe retirees? Parents with free time while their kids are at school? College students?

“Why do you think these folks would be interested in volunteering?”

“Because we don’t have enough volunteers, and they would keep busy, do something good, and maybe the students would get community service credits?” [Notice, the expressed goal centers around the organization’s need for volunteers, not the volunteer’s need for meaning and fulfilment. There’s no mention of specific benefits like meeting people with shared values; making new friendships; networking; developing job skills, or fulfilling a moral or religious obligation.]

“Do you know where to find these potential volunteers?”

“Maybe at schools? Places of worship? “Hospitals?” “Doctors’ offices?” “Community centers?” “Adult learning programs?”

“Do you have a distribution plan for the brochures at all these places?”

“Not yet.  We thought we’d just drop them at places since we can’t afford to mail them.”

“Would your message be the same to these three different constituencies, or slightly different?”

“A little different, I guess.”

“So a single brochure might not do the job for you?”

Maybe not, but we can only afford one.”

“Do you think another communications medium might work just as well, or more effectively?

“I was told we needed a brochure. What else did you have in mind?”

“There’s email. Might you be able to get mailing lists at some of the places you think the volunteers you’re looking for hang out? You could then target your message directly to the needs of parents, for example. You could even differentiate between the needs of stay-at-home and working parents.”

“Hmmn… we do have connections at a lot of these places. We could ask.”

“Do you have an email list for current volunteers, and might some of these folks be open to new opportunities? Since you weren’t planning to mail the brochures, this could be a way to reach folks already inclined to volunteer.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Do you know what types of hours, on average, your volunteers put in? Do you have flexibility to offer short-term shifts vs. a long-term commitment?” Do you know how many might welcome additional opportunities if they could make their own schedule?”

“We have data on hours, but it’s different depending on the volunteer program”

“If we helped devise it, might you send a survey, segmenting by program, to learn more about your volunteers’ interests, needs and openness to new opportunities?”

“That would be interesting.”

“So, maybe we should begin with a survey? And you should reach out now to some of your connections at businesses and community organizations to discuss how this volunteer program might meet some of the needs of their constituents? Then we can incorporate feedback to create some targeted emails for different markets?”

“Yeah, that might be better than a brochure.”

Your marketing staff may lack clarity around who the customer is as well. If you ask the marketer to create a campaign case statement, they’ll likely think the market is the whole universe of folks who engage with your organization. This may include the constituencies with which they’re most familiar – i.e., patients, students, parents, ticket buyers, members, volunteers and internal stakeholders. Donors may be an afterthought, and then thought of only generically. The differences between different donor segments may not be thought of at all.


I’ve edited countless case statements that don’t meet the needs of donors. They don’t include inspiring stories or photos, don’t include a clear description of the problem and solution, and don’t offer a specific call to action. In fact, sometimes it’s not even clear the organization is supported by philanthropy. These glorified brochures become ego-centric puff pieces touting the wonders of the organization. They make the board, administration and executive team very happy. But if you are a fundraiser, you need to care about making donors happy.

Before taking on a project or checking it off your list.

Go through the iterative process outlined in the above examples to suss out the reason you’re being “hired” (or assigned) to do the task at hand.

Begin with the why, what and who. Really flesh this out. There actually may be more than one purpose you seek to serve with the same work. Rather than creating three projects to serve three purposes, wouldn’t it be wise to serve all three purposes with a single project?  This is called working smart.

Also ask: “how will we know if it’s working?”

For example, if your “whys” are to (1) build our mailing list; (2) more deeply engage current non-donor constituents, and (3) renew current donors, how will you measure whether these objectives have been met? Do you have tracking systems in place? Target metrics?

Merely sending a tweet, FB post, email or newsletter, hosting an event or writing a case statement is not an achievement. It’s just a task checked off your list.

Achievements depend on what you hoped to achieve.

Just because you worked your butt off, and did your very best work, that doesn’t mean what you did accomplished what it was supposed to accomplish.

How could it, when you didn’t begin with clarity on your desired outcome?

The single most important lesson I ever learned.