Finding your Why.

What business can learn from charity

Why do you existWhether you're a fan of austerity or not, it's unarguable that one of its effects has been to put unprecedented pressure on the charity sector. In the last couple of years, I've been helping a number of them to find ways to adapt, through bringing a more business-like discipline to what they do.

Which is why this week, I found myself hosting a seminar for CEOs of some of the UKs biggest and best loved charities, from Children in Need and Anthony Nolan, to the Eden Project and Scope. We focused on what charities can learn from business, particularly on innovation, agility and operational performance, but my biggest take-away from my experience working in the sector, is that it isn’t a one-way street.

Businesses can learn important lessons from charities too, particularly around trust, customer and employee engagement, and most of all, around the power of having a clear purpose, an over-riding “why”, which goes way beyond making money.

Purpose in business isn't new. Anita Roddick founded Body Shop to demonstrate that toiletries and cosmetics could be every bit as good, if not better, without being tested on animals. Paul Lindley founded Ella's Kitchen to show that convenience food for kids could be made just with natural, healthy ingredients and still be absolutely delicious.

In fact, a lot of great brands have a story behind them, but it’s rare that the story remains the living, breathing heart of the brand. It’s even rarer that the story is actually the fundamental reason that all of the people in the organisation come to work. That’s what great charities have, and it’s the reason millions of people every day willingly give their time, their money and their voice, to be a part of it. So how can you translate this to your business?

The simplest way is to listen to your happiest, most enthusiastic customers about what you do for them, and what it means to them in their work and their lives. This becomes your mission. The next step is to take your mission beyond lip service and a nice strap-line, by putting that customer reaction at the very heart of what you do – setting it out explicitly as why your business exists.

The very best brands set out not just to be different, but to make a difference. They know their “why” – why they exist. They touch lives and in return, get love and loyalty from their customers and employees. And the one thing that really sets them apart is this: they’ve made a subtle but incredibly powerful mental shift, from delighting customers in order to make money, to making money in order to delight more customers.

What’s your “why”, and how can you put that at the centre of everything you do?