What You Do vs. Why We Should Care

Long ago, most packaged goods and consumer products companies learned that it wasn’t enough (or that it was downright foolish) to merely communicate what they make in flat, functional terms. Advertising is, and always will be, much more than merely an exercise in broadcasting descriptions of your products and services. That’s why have the tools called Positioning, Messaging, Storytelling, Branded Content, Social Media, and so on.

But it seems that many not-for-profits and NGOs still haven’t caught up with this idea. Far too many still pump out information on the noble things they do, as if that were enough to get people to pay attention, change their attitudes, and give their hard-earned money to a cause. And to make matters worse, that information is often riddled with jargon or 5-syllable technical words. And then accompanied by a photo of someone in need, the presumed recipient of the services we’re being asked to donate to. A terrible idea. In fact, not an idea at all.

The reason for this lies primarily in the fact that those who work at a not-for-profit are, generally speaking, fully immersed in their cause, day in and day out. Which is as it should be. And that cause is, of course, very worthy of our attention and funding. One NGO executive once said to me, “What is wrong with people today? Why can’t they see how important this issue is when the scientific data is staring them in the face?” And then she pointed to an article about shrinking glaciers complete with a photo of a stranded polar bear family.

Well it’s not because people are uncaring. Or stupid. Or even oblivious. It is because we are built to parse out what’s relevant to our immediate circumstances and what’s not. And we are fundamentally driven by Meaning.

Simon Sinek, in his now famous TED talk called “Start with Why”, makes it simple for us: He draws 3 concentric circles and puts Why in the centre, followed by How, and ending with What in the outer ring. He notes that most companies tell you What they make, and then maybe a bit about How they make it or deliver it. Few companies ever get to Why. And then there are those like Apple, who begin with the Why, and then get to their unique How, and end with the exciting What you can buy at a significant premium.

Causes would be well advised to take the time and use the right techniques to get at the Why. The answer to Why we should give to a cause is not “because it’s needed” or “because it’s important”. Nearly everyone can say that. It’s because of a deeper psychological need, usually a specific one, that’s unmet. Why do people give to St. Jude’s Hospital at the tune of $750 million a year? Because they want to believe that every child can be cured of a deadly disease. Because the idea that the impossible is possible is irresistible. Why did Canadians respond so powerfully to the launch of Because I am a Girl? Because they were inspired by the idea that the ultimate underdog, the average girl in the developing world, was in fact the hero that would vanquish global poverty.

“What” questions lead to cul-de-sacs, dead ends in communication. “Why” questions get to what’s meaningful and what will inspire people to action.