How Clarity of Purpose Allowed An Organization to Raise $82m

In Brand Differentiation, Brand Strategy, Purpose, Mission & Values

Over the past eight years in our home city of Columbus, Ohio, we at Storyforge have observed an interesting case study in how clarity of purpose and message can create remarkable results, and how a lack of such clarity can stall even the most established organizations.

Over these few years, one organization created $82 million in value from nothing, while another in the same industry struggled to grow. You might think it would be a lesson learned from our world-class business sector (Ohio does have 23 of the Fortune 500 companies), but it came from a more unlikely place.

On the first day of work at my first corporate job, I was given a lot of paperwork. One was a form to donate a percentage of my salary to the local United Way campaign. At that point in my life, I didn’t know much about the United Way. So I did what most of us do at work when we have a question: I asked a co-worker. She was about my age, in a similar role, and she’d been at the company for many years. Surely, she would have the answer. “What’s this United Way thing all about?” I asked.

There are many things she could have said in reply: “United Way is the world’s largest privately-funded nonprofit organization and does important work to advance the common good,” or perhaps, “It’s an easy way to have the greatest impact on the greatest need in our community,” or even, “Hey, it’s pre-tax!!” What she said instead was: “It doesn’t matter! You have to give! We have to reach our goal. If you don’t, your name goes on a list and it’s really bad!”

Well, you can imagine as an eager young professional determined not to harm her career I signed that paper and walked it down to HR without delay … and without any real understanding of what I was giving to and why. Year over year, we consistently hit or exceeded our targets. If someone looked at the United Way campaign results in terms of participation percentages, or the number of departments hitting their goals, they would have called it a screaming success. They might have assumed that the whole of the organization was passionately behind the work of the United Way. But how many people were giving – like me – because they thought they had to, and not because they truly understood why they were giving? Without really understanding – and believing in – the WHY, how long can knowledge of the what and how get results? Is compulsion getting short-term results, but putting long-term sustainability at risk?

In a period when United Way campaign totals here in central Ohio (where Storyforge is based) had not yet recovered from their pre-financial crisis high in 2007, a brand new fundraising campaign captured a significant share of the same fundraising market. Pelotonia, a bike ride to raise money for cancer research, came out of nowhere to raise $4 million in its first year, almost doubled that in its second year, and has now raised $82 million over six years (this year’s results have yet to be announced).

There are certainly many differences between the two organizations, but I believe clarity of purpose is the reason for Pelotonia’s success … and clarity of purpose can be United Way’s solution. Pelotonia has rallied people around a clear and compelling purpose – end cancer – and communicated that message consistently year after year. Ask someone on the street what Pelotonia’s purpose is, and they will likely answer: end cancer. Ask the same person for United Way’s purpose? You’ll get a wide variety of answers. All valid, and all admirable, but inconsistent.

Just as it is for for-profit businesses, the path to purpose for charitable organizations is the path to profit. Purpose creates meaning, it motivates, unifies, and becomes a rallying cry. Financial goals are important, but they are just goals. Purpose is the reason we seek to reach and exceed those goals.

Last week, mirroring shifts seen at a national level, United Way of Central Ohio announced they would no longer set and focus on a dollar goal for their annual campaigns, choosing instead to focus on their purpose: finding and fighting the root of causes of poverty. This is a purpose we can all get behind.

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Haley Boehning is a principle at Storyforge. Building on 20+ years driving change for Fortune 500 clients, non-profits and start-ups, Haley has developed a pragmatic approach to change through storytelling, developing relevant, consistent and emotionally compelling messages and targeted communications strategies that help brand and culture triumph in times of great change.