It’s Not About What You Do: It’s About Why You Do It

Why does your organization exist?

No, really: why does it exist?

I don’t mean what are your business goals, or what products do you make, or what services do you provide, or how much money would you like to make. I mean why do you do what you do? Why is it important, essential, or different? Why does it matter? What do you believe?

Think about the brands and products you love, the ones you’re fiercely loyal to. Your loyalty doesn’t grow because you like the color selection of the products, or because you thought the print ad used a nice font, or they have good shipping costs. You are loyal to the brands and products you love because you identify with their ethos. Because they have an ethos, a belief system. Those organizations have a compelling, emotional, and pervasive answer to the question: why do you do what you do?

Knowing Why is the Beginning of Any Good Digital Strategy

The very first step in an organized digital strategy is defining your “why,” but it’s a step many organizations ignore or rush past. But if you don’t nail the answer to the question, everything that comes after it will lack the most basic driving principle you have: the reason why your brand actually matters. 

One of my favorite marketing teaching tools is Simon Sinek’s landmark TED Talk, “Start With Why.” In it, he persuasively lays out the logic behind starting with “why.” Most organizations, he says, begin with “what,” creating a marketing strategy through explaining what they do. But that’s not what compels people. And neither does explaining “how” an organization does what it does, however innovative that process is. And while those are absolutely important components to an organization—what you do and how you do it—they aren’t the core reasons why people have those pre-verbal positive responses. The core reason for those responses is that an organization communicates its unique and emotionally moving reason for existing.

“Every organization knows what they do,” Sinek says. “Most know how they do it. Almost no one knows why they do it.”

And that right there is the number one reason I have organizations begin to shape a digital strategy by answering the question of why. It not only serves as the basis of every marketing effort from there on out, but it sets them apart from the competition in an immediate, emotional way.

Start With What You Know:
From What to Why

Even though our goal is to land at the “why,” don’t be afraid to start with the “what.” In fact, many organizations might find that to be the easiest place to start. After all, every employee knows what the organization does.

In a session with the National Gaucher Foundation, a nonprofit that raises awareness and provides resources for those with the rare disease, I guided them through a Sinek-inspired exercise on moving through the Golden Circle to get at the heart of the organization.

“To get to the ‘why,’ we first discussed ‘what’ our organization does and ‘how,’” says Executive Director Amy Blum. “This was in and of itself enlightening and created an energy in the room.”

That energy isn’t accidental. It can be exciting and empowering to have your entire team discuss what it is they actually do. Everyone likes talking about what they accomplish and how they accomplish it. Starting with that can make the daunting task of uncovering the “why” more approachable. Blum describes a gradual narrowing of focus as the team moved through what they do and how they do it.

“Why do we do what we do at the National Gaucher Foundation?” Blum says. “Ultimately, it’s because we want to ensure that no Gaucher patient is left behind.”

Landing on that reason—because no Gaucher patient should be left behind—is exactly the kind of sentiment that will compel the foundation’s audience to pay attention. The rare disease often goes ignored in the mainstream, and the foundation’s reason for existing is to balance the scales, to advocate for those who might, in fact, be left behind.

Your Beliefs Power Your Why

Sinek famously jokes in his talk that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t call his “I Have a Dream” speech the “I Have a Plan” speech. Sinek’s implicit point is that people rallied around King because he had beliefs, and beliefs are a majorly powerful force in decision-making.

For purpose-driven organizations, articulating the belief that powers them is of the utmost importance. Beliefs are usually at the heart of purpose-driven organizations, but they are rarely articulated, especially in marketing materials. In a session I ran with executives at ShalomLearning, I had everyone try to answer the question of why the organization exists.

ShalomLearning does something big: they use the latest education technology to develop education programs to teach Hebrew and Judaics in a contemporary way. How do they do it? They partner with synagogues and families to revamp teaching methods. It’s important, exciting, and relevant work. But why do they do it?

“Everyone was coming at [the answer] from their own job perspective,” says Sarah Sicherman, Marketing Director of ShalomLearning, of the session. With this exercise, however, Sicherman says, “we were able to meld all of our ‘whys’ together to come up with a cohesive message of why we do what we do.”

So why does ShalomLearning do what they do?

“Because we believe that positive Jewish education is essential for children and their families to live a meaningful Jewish life.”

And that right there is what will resonate with potential partner organizations—not necessarily the flashiness of the technology or the nuts and bolts of the curriculum. To paraphrase Sinek, people don’t want to be part of what you do; they want to be part of why you do it. They want to do business with people who believe what they believe.

Potential partners don’t want to be a part of ShalomLearning’s technology package; they want to be a part of ShalomLearning because ShalomLearning believes that Jewish education is so essential that new approaches must be taken to ensure that the tradition lasts.

This is why it’s important that you are able to clearly and effectively communicate the belief or beliefs that informs your organization’s reason for existing. The thing about revealing your beliefs to your audience is that it in turn exposes your organization’s authenticity. Your audience doesn’t pay attention to product-hawking or service-shilling. They pay attention when real people who sound like them say things that resonate with their experience. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll attract the kind of loyal, belief-driven partners and clients that can make an organization’s future.