What? How? Why it matters.

I recently joined a webinar on an important topic and found myself talking out loud to the very able presenter, who couldn’t hear a word I was saying because of the universal mute button. “Stop telling me what to do,” I said. “This is difficult stuff you are leading us through. Tell us how to do it. Tell us how to deal with the board members who don’t want to go there. Tell us about the hard decisions you made and the principles you used to make them. Tell us what could go wrong and how you would help us prepare against that.”

It was an interesting webinar, but I don’t have a next step. There wasn’t enough meat for me to dig my vegetarian teeth into. Which is unfortunate because it was an important topic.

I decided to write about this experience and then paused. I usually find myself guiding nonprofit people to tell me what they do, not how. Ask a nonprofit person to introduce themself, and they could well start listing all of the things their organization does. That’s great that they run those 21 programs, but what ultimately do they do and why?

As I thought about it, nonprofit practitioners tend to skip what and focus on how. Nonprofit trainers tend to dwell on what and leave too little time for how. Fixing this matters.

What frames our conversation. It tells us at a high level the goal and scope of the work. It invites us to decide if we care.

Nonprofit practitioners often need to pause after telling the what to wait for that invitation to dive deeper into how they do what they do. Nonprofit trainers do not. They received that invitation the moment we show up for their class. We attend workshops and webinars to learn how to walk across that bridge from information to how we can efficiently and effectively act on that information so our organizations thrive.

How lays out the principles the trainer uses to do what they are training others to do. It explains key decisions and how choices were vetted. It describes the hard work and how to navigate through it. It offers reflection on where people often fail and steps that someone could take to avoid that result.

Getting clarity on what and how matters. Nonprofit practitioners need to be seen as the movement leaders, knowledge bearers, and community conveners they are. They need learning experiences that they can count on to be excellent and outcome-focused. The rural nonprofits that I spend a lot of time working with need help figuring out how to right-size the advice they are getting.

Here’s an example from a colleague working at a small, rural nonprofit. She attended a international fundraising conference where an expert talked about how they used postcards to build awareness in a fundraising campaign. But postcards don’t really fit our culture, thought my colleague. She now needs to do the thinking on how to transfer that idea into her context. Lesson over? Often. How would that have been different if the expert explained the underlying goal, named the options on the table, and described how they decided on postcards? What if they explained how they arrived at their markers of success and how they deployed their staff or volunteers? Far more helpful.

I would be careless if I stopped at saying what I saw the problem to be without giving you tips on how to fix it. How awkward if you started talking to this blog post when I can’t hear you! The simple answer is to slow down. If you are involved in running or working with a nonprofit, start with your mission and speak to the high level “buckets” of work you do. If you are training others, reflect on how you do what you are teaching them to do. What steps did you take? What decisions did you make (and how did you make them)? What was hard? What are signs of success?

Once you sort out what and how, you’ll know who is on first.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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