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Defining Your Nonprofit's Purpose

Your purpose has to be the true foundation that all else rests on – your policies, your procedures, the nuts and bolts of your daily operations.

Fundamental question: what’s the difference between a nonprofit and a for-profit? And the easy answer, of course, is that one is focused on making money and the other isn’t. But relegating the discussion to just that factor completely misses the point: a nonprofit is, in many ways, a much more complex entity than a standard business model. And it’s that very complexity that’s sometimes overlooked when the discussion about nonprofits is unfolding. A nonprofit truly is in a league of its own, and failing to understand all of those associated nuances undermines the most defining aspect of such an organization.

In some respects, a small business has a much more straightforward mission than a nonprofit. The business will provide goods or services to its clients or customers, and those who choose to patronize the business will do so with a clear understanding of how they will benefit from the interaction. The net result is that an exchange takes place – a monetary value is assigned to what’s being provided, and, if the customer or client deems it to be a reasonable transaction, they walk away with whatever they’ve purchased and both parties are satisfied.

The world of the nonprofit is much more multi-layered. There’s simply no way to reduce what happens between the organization and its clients to the mere transactional level. A major component of this is that most nonprofits have a mission that uniquely embodies why they exist in the first place, something that transcends the simple structure of a business transaction. It can seem esoteric and vague, but there really is an intangible aspect to nonprofits that needs to be embraced in order for them to truly live up to their potential. Just chasing after a lofty goal is meaningless, but the nonprofit owner who can find practical ways to distill the organization’s mission into real life interactions has really accomplished something.

Did you take the formal steps of creating a 501c3 in order to bring your vision for serving others into concrete form? If so, you were obviously deeply motivated by the purpose you felt so driven by, and failing to infuse that purpose into every aspect of your organization does a tremendous disservice to everything you’ve built. Your purpose has to be the true foundation that all else rests on – your policies, your procedures, the nuts and bolts of your daily operations. If you fail to keep your focus on that purpose, you’ll not only have difficulty trying to get others to embrace what you’re doing, but you’ll even start to lose perspective yourself. The worst possible outcome could be where you suddenly find yourself

compromising the very essence of your organization because you’ve decided to pursue something contrary to why you started in the first place.

The overarching differentiation between the for-profit and the nonprofit is that the nonprofit has to find ways to inspire, motivate, and captivate. Someone may repeatedly patronize a small business because they like the quality of the products or services being offered, and this can be the core component toward developing true brand loyalty. But again, in that traditional business aspect, an exchange takes place: someone provides something, receives monetary compensation for it, and the day is done. The nonprofit has to generate interaction on a completely different level, and understanding this is key to fostering a thriving organization living out its purpose.

Where things become more complicated is in the discussion of funding your mission. Grants, donations, and endowments are the likely sources to fuel your efforts, but these exist in a highly competitive arena, and making yourself appear as an attractive candidate to receive them requires real intentionality. This is where the embracing of your purpose becomes especially critical, because what initially inspired you to found your nonprofit needs to be presented in a way that’s inspirational to others. Especially if competing entities in your local arena are pursuing a similar mission, you need to discover what makes your organization truly unique, and then find relevant ways to communicate that message to your prospective audience.

The defining purpose of why you do what you do has to be more than a catchphrase – discover what that looks like in the real world. You always need to be thinking of creative ways to compel others to buy into the essence of your mission, and that needs to go well beyond what you do personally. Every single employee, volunteer, or intern associated with your nonprofit has to have a deep grasp of your purpose, as well as an understanding of what role they play in bringing it about. This also touches on a critical factor to consider when bringing people into your organization – you can’t simply take everyone who says “yes”.

When you can find like-minded people who have a similar level of passion to what you embrace, you have a real opportunity to bring your organization to the next level. It has to start with you; whoever is in the primary leadership role needs to be the chief spokesperson of your organization’s purpose. But distilling that vision through the ranks will serve your nonprofit in a myriad of ways, and the net result is that every aspect of the organization will have the driving purpose at its core.

Whether you’re at a place where you’re just beginning to contemplate taking the steps to create a nonprofit, or you’ve been operating one for the last five years, be open to the challenge of truly establishing the definition of your purpose. If an outside entity were to ask you, “What’s your organization all about?”, what would your response be? You can’t provide an answer such as “to help people” and hope to instill any real inspiration. How do you propose to help? What are the specific mechanics that drive the carrying out of that mission? What are you doing that differentiates you from everyone else in the same sphere?

When you can define your nonprofit in specific terms like these, you’ve already entered into a distinctive space that many organizations never reach. The deepest realization of your purpose is when it truly resonates with the people it serves and embodies a valid impact on your local community. Commit to embracing every facet of that guiding principle and you will truly find the fulfilment of your mission.


Do you want to get a deeper perspective on the overall health of your small business or nonprofit? If so, take your organization's temperate at Email us at or call us at 240-329-9387 to see how we can help you work smarter, not harder. In the meantime, make sure you check our recent videos on YouTube by clicking HERE. Each episode is designed to inspire, empower, and transform you and/or your organization.

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