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March 29, 2017

Purpose and donor engagement

What purpose does your charity serve? A well articulated purpose statement is simple, inspiring and memorable. What's more it can help engage your donors.

Purpose and donor engagement

Carla Miller

Whether it is a true story or an urban myth I love this story. Apparently in 1962 President Kennedy visited the NASA space centre and noticed a janitor carrying a broom. He interrupted his tour, went over to the janitor and said "Hi I'm Jack Kennedy. What are you doing?" the man responded "Well Mr President, I'm helping put a man on the moon".

But what purpose does your organisation serve?


Let's start by defining purpose in the context of your organisation.

Purpose: The difference you're trying to make

Mission: How you do it

Vision: What the world will look like when you've achieved your purpose

A well articulated purpose statement is simple, inspiring and memorable - unlike many vision and mission statements, which can be long and unwieldy.

How does purpose help engagement?

Purpose feeds into our individual need for meaning and to lead meaningful lives - something that those of us who choose to work in the charity sector prioritise and one of the key drivers for donors making gifts.

I also know a property developer who describes his work as "putting a roof over people's heads" and that keeps him motivated. How many people in your organisation when asked what they do would reply by talking about the cause rather than their job function? How many of them think about it when they go to work everyday?

Purpose also provides an emotional connection and influences our decision making. Let's look at a simplified version of how our brains make decisions.

Neocortex: This is our newest area of the brain. It is responsible for all our rational and analytical thought and language. This allows us to look through vast amounts of facts and figures, but it doesn't drive behaviour.

Limbic Brain: The Limbic brain comprises of the middle two sections and is responsible for all our feelings, such as trust and loyalty. This area of the brain is responsible for all human behaviour and all our decision making. It is where our emotional connection takes place, and it has no capacity for language.

So we make our decisions using our 'gut instinct' and then rationalise them with language using our neocortex. It therefore makes sense to engage people's limbic brain through emotion.

And finally, purpose can give everyone something to get behind - "a common purpose".

Communicating purpose to engage audiences

Simon Sinek talks about the Golden Circle of communication in his book "Start with Why".

Sinek argues that being able to articulate your WHY, or purpose, helps organisations to engage their audiences.

Every organisation on the planet knows WHAT they do. These are the products they sell or services

Some organisations know HOW they do it. These are the things that make them special or set them apart from their competition.

Very few organisations know WHY they do what they do. WHY is not about making money. That's a result. WHY is a purpose, cause or belief. It's the very reason your organisation exists.


Here are some great corporate examples.

SouthWest Airlines purpose - "To democratize the skies - to make air travel as available and flexible for average Americans as it has been for the well to do."

Purpose: "Southwest Airlines is democratizing the skies."

Mission: "We democratize the skies by keeping our fares low and spirits high."

Vision: "I see a world in which everyone in America has the chance to go and see and do things they've never dreamed of-where everyone has the ability to fly."

It's worth noting that SouthWest Airlines have had 40 consecutive years of profitability, even through 9/11 when airlines suffered hugely. Despite being a budget airline their customer service is legendary and Americans genuinely love them. Ryanair can't say the same thing!

Patagonia's purpose & brand story - "Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing - as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None require a motor; none deliver the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature.

Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. The approach we take towards product design demonstrates a bias for simplicity and utility.

For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide.

We know that our business activity - from lighting stores to dyeing shirts - creates pollution as a by-product. So we work steadily to reduce those harms. We use recycled polyester in many of our clothes and only organic, rather than pesticide-intensive, cotton.

Staying true to our core values during thirty-plus years in business has helped us create a company we're proud to run and work for. And our focus on making the best products possible has brought us success in the marketplace.

Business benefit

The Meaningful Brands Index measures the potential business benefits gained by a brand when it is seen to improve our wellbeing and quality of life. In 2016 it showed that:

. Meaningful brands gain, on average, 46% more share of wallet than less meaningful brands

. Meaningful brands see their marketing KPIs perform 100% better overall compared with less meaningful brand

. Meaningful brands outperform the stock market by 133%

. Trust is no longer enough: meaningfulness is the key driver for brand strength in an organic world

Charities should be the best organisations at explaining their purpose but in many cases companies are beating them to it. With this increasing trend, the ability of companies to invest money in telling great stories and the reduced trust in the charity sector we run the risk of losing our place as the purposeful sector.

So why aren't charity brands making the same impact? After all they exist to make the world better. The simple answer is that often charities forget to communicate their purpose. Instead they are so caught up in telling supporters what the organisation does and how that they forget to communicate the reasons behind what they do. I often work with fundraising teams who are so focused on what they do and how they do it that they forget to keep articulating why they do it. The need is so obvious to us, working close to the cause but it isn't always obvious to your donors.

How is your organisation doing?

Could you, as a charity professional, describe your organisation's purpose in a sentence that makes people want to get involved? Try it now and see if it passes the simple, inspiring and memorable test.

Could you come up with a purpose for your team as well?

Now review your fundraising communications and see if you're focusing enough on the WHY.

How does your purpose factor into how your team and charity are run on a daily basis? Does it impact recruitment? Is it the deciding factor when you're making difficult decisions? Do you collaborate with other charities to have a shared purpose?

Let's reclaim purpose and use it to engage our supporters and teams.


I asked Kath Abrahams of Diabetes UK how important purpose and vision are for fundraising.

"We're just developing a vision and mission for the charity. We see this as an absolutely critical thing to do. We want to articulate very clearly - this is our overall purpose and this is where we're headed.

Then we can take another look at our strategy in the context of the overall purpose and direction of travel, and the fact that diabetes is so relevant right now. We can look at how we maximise the opportunity we have to make the greatest possible difference to people affected by the cause."

Further reading

Meaningful Brands Index Simon Sinek -

About the author

Carla Miller is a coach, consultant and facilitator, who works with charities and companies to create growth and develop happy, high-performing teams.


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