Why do we exist as an organization?

Author’s Note: This post is the fourth in an eight-part series on the strategic framework of the nonprofit organization — United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Click here to read the full series.

Early in my career at United Way for Southeastern Michigan, I remember sitting in a strategic planning meeting when I heard the question, “Why does the organization exist?”

The conversation led to all kinds of insights — with topics ranging from improving communities to helping people directly.

Rob Pew, a former Board Member at the United Way in Grand Rapids and the CEO of Steelcase at the time, raised his hand and asked, “Why wouldn’t we be working on solving, not just improving?”

That insight has stuck with me since.

Why are we only relieving the symptoms? Shouldn’t we be focusing on the cure?

There is a story about a small village struggling with the same issue.

One day, a villager sees a baby floating in a nearby stream. The villager rushes in and saves the baby. Suddenly, another baby comes floating along. Quickly, the villagers rush into the stream one after the other to save the babies.

At one point, a villager stops for a moment to question why babies are floating down the river in the first place. The villager pulls himself out of the water and heads upstream. Once there, he sees an ogre tossing the babies into the stream one after the other. Quickly, he assembles other villagers to come upstream with him to stop the ogre. The ogre sees the large group of villagers approaching him and stops throwing the babies. Problem solved. Getting “upstream” was critical to the solution.

Often, we focus on the urgent, but never quite take the time to find out the source of the problem.

Much of our work at United Way for Southeastern Michigan is solving the immediate crisis, but we are also working on the issues causing those crises. We are moving upstream.

For example, our strategy in education reflects this. Our early childhood work is upstream. Our high school work, however, is downstream. Both are important. But at the end of the day, we want to solve the issues we face, rather than just treating the symptoms.

Why do we exist? We exist to solve complex social problems we face in Detroit and Southeastern Michigan.

Other blog posts on Building a Strong Nonprofit

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 1: Our Mission to Empower Metro Detroit Communities
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 2: What’s a BHAG?
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 3: Core Values
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 5: Our Theory Of Change
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 6: Strategic Anchors
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 7: Engagement Pyramid and Cycle
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 8: Board Roles
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