"Then what?" A big audacious question

Here's the scenario. I'm sitting and listening to folks from a great organization talk about the work they do. Work that saves lives. One of the leaders turns to me and says, "So as you can see, we have a big purpose."

And I agree. I'm humbled by the work that they do.

What could I possibly add. They have incredible purpose. It was a pretty simple proposition. People are dying. They do stuff that helps keep those people from dying.

Maybe I should of packed up, congratulated them on their noble work, and headed out the door. But something was bugging me. And I felt a little insolent just thinking it. It was a question that was nagging at me.

"Then what?"

Stopping at the obvious

Consider an organization that feeds the hungry. They may say their Big Audacious Meaning is keeping people from dying from starvation. That's monumental. And believe me, I'm not criticizing.

But I am asking, "Then what?"


Donors to policy makers will be interested when you say you're stopping starvation. But eventually they are going to ask, "Then what?" The people you are helping will be hungry again tomorrow. In other words, those potential supporters want to know how to solve the bigger problem. How do we help keep people from getting to this place.

As it turns out, the organization I mentioned had a plan. The leaders talked about the systems they had to build sustainable solutions. It included education, equipment, and funding to help the starving populations. Because they knew that, in order for their effort to have real impact, it had to be about more than giving. It had to involve the people.

Charity still had a role. We can't just let people die while we're trying to implement a sustainable solution. But it did make me wonder about how the organization defined it's purpose. Why is that important? Hang with me a bit longer.

The role of sensationalism

On one hand, sensationalism can be a very powerful way to open hearts (and wallets). I'm a sucker for those appeals on TV that show everything from starving children to ragged looking animals trapped in cages in a puppy mill somewhere.

On the other hand, sensationalism can become overwhelming and we can quickly become desensitized to the horrors. It's one of our human coping mechanisms. All of which causes me to question how the organization should define its purpose.

Is it "to stop starvation"?

It's hard to argue against that. But I'm going to try. I believe there is greater power in a purpose that is founded on hope rather than injustices.

Hope = Big Audacious Meaning

Hope is that we will reduce the incidence of starvation. But there is more to that. By working with people in need, we will restore hope to them. So they can hope for the future. That is the more powerful purpose. That's the Big Audacious Meaning.

I know we will need the sensationalism to shock people out of their malaise. To take notice. But if we really want them to commit to our cause (beyond a one-time donation), then we need to show them the answer to, "Then what?" We need to show them that they are directly connected to restoring and furthering a sustainable sense of hope.

If we focus on this as our purpose, we'll not only help save lives, we will help begin to build hope. Which helps our fellow humans do incredible things. Like helping to build a sustainable path to a better world.

Ask the brave question

I run an exercise called the 5 "Why's". It forces a group to look at why we do what we do and to keep asking "why" until we get to that thing that gives us pause. That purpose that feels monumental. Asking "then what" has the same intention. It is not disrespectful, nor does it diminish the outcomes we have already defined (like "saving lives" in the scenario I described). Rather, it helps us push on to to see if there is something beyond. Something that can build on the attention-grabbing outcome we have already identified. Something that may encompass that and add a whole lot more. Something that doesn't just address a problem, but starts a movement. Something big. And audacious.

It's not always easy to do. Especially with good organizations that are so purpose driven. But it would be doing them a disservice if you didn't muster the courage. If you didn't speak up and ask, "Then what?"

Dan Salva is a co-founder of Will & Grail, with more than three decades of experience in brand marketing and developing and implementing go-to-market strategies. He can be reached at dsalva@willgrail.com.

PurposeDan Salva