From Function to Feeling

Crafting a values-first story to create a deeper connection with donors

By Laura Staugaitis

This article was originally published on Charity Navigator.

While working with purpose-driven organizations on branding and storytelling for the last twenty years here at Hyperakt, we’ve learned a lot about what lights a fire in nonprofit audiences. One of our favorite frameworks to apply to the field of mission-driven work is inspired by Simon Sinek’s golden circle: that there are three fundamental components to how you introduce yourself.

A bright red background with white, partially obscured text fragments. Visible words include "What," "When," "WHO," and "Why," positioned unevenly and seemingly cut off or layered over each other. Some text is obscured by white blocks.

Say it with me: “So, what do you do?” Not the most spine-tingling conversation starter, right? What about:

  • “What motivates you?”
  • “What are your values?”
  • “What’s your reason for being?”

Now we’re talking.

The reality is that the all-too-common first question—leading with what—is as dry on a website as it is on a date. But when you kick things off by articulating your values, you instantly shorten the distance between you and your conversation partner and create an opportunity for meaningful connection. Let’s dive into the benefits for nonprofits of establishing, right away, why you do what you do.

Because we (as individuals and organizations) so commonly define ourselves with what, it can feel like the most familiar, and most natural way to describe ourselves. “We provide public defense to people who can’t afford it.” “We deliver meals to seniors in need.” “We run after-school programs for high school students in under-resourced communities.”

The next level of nuance is how: “We train exceptional public defense attorneys.” “We mobilize volunteers across all city districts.” “We partner with working artists and entrepreneurs to inspire teens.”

But where the real emotional resonance comes into play is with why: “Every person has a right to smart, empathetic, and rigorous legal representation.” “Because no one should have to wonder where their next meal comes from.” “We believe that where you’re from shouldn’t limit how far you go.”

It’s risky to put a stake in the ground and speak from a specific point of view because it creates the possibility that people will disagree with you on what feels like a personal level. But by taking a stance, you create clarity—is the person who disagrees with your organizational values the donor, program partner, or product vendor relationship you want to invest in? And leading with why is so invaluable because it opens the door for people to agree—to recognize that their reason for being aligns with yours.

In a world where there’s always a shortage of nonprofit funding, values-driven positioning helps donors articulate and reflect on what their priorities are, and establishes a sense of urgency to gather the resources you need to move toward the better future you envision. Every cause is important, but the ones that tap into an emotional place for a donor will create lasting relationships. An acknowledgment and commitment on a values-level means that even if your how or what evolves, that donor will still be by your side.

Sold on why yet? If you’re worried that this recommendation means you need to repaint your website with a big W-H-Y, don’t fret! There are a few, different ways to articulate why: addressing the underlying problem, defining your purpose, or describing the future you're trying to build are all compelling frameworks; try each one on for size as you determine what’s best for your organizational voice.

Even if you’re not considering a big brand shift, examining the way you talk about yourself has a profound impact. Not only will the conversations with your team that surface your values inspire better audience touchpoints, but they will serve as important guideposts to navigate the ever-changing landscape of purpose-driven work.

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