01/26/2015 01:47 pm ET Updated Mar 28, 2015

Your Organization Does Amazing Things... So Why Doesn't Anyone Understand What You Do?

There are so many incredible organizations that are well loved, and yet often misunderstood. Teach for America has spent years helping people see that they are not trying to solve a teacher shortage.* Many people get excited about Ashoka's massive global network of social entrepreneurs, completely missing the part of their mission focused on helping everyone become a changemaker.** Tell me what you think The Posse Foundation does and then take a good hard look at their website. They are far more than a scholarship for "at-risk" students.. .and in fact, you won't see the words "at-risk" anywhere on their site. On purpose.***

When I surveyed the members of the Executive Director Bootcamp, most organization leaders were concerned that even their own staff members couldn't 100% accurately relay their mission. So where does the breakdown happen?

1. Elevator pitches don't work. Most social issues are complicated. Closing the achievement gap? Try explaining that in a nutshell. If it could be summed up in a neat little sentence, it wouldn't be such a difficult problem to solve. Drawing the link between empathy and social entrepreneurship? That takes longer than 45 seconds. Yet so frequently, organizations are forced to squeeze themselves into sound bites. They cling to the elements that are easiest to grasp, or they do their best to say it all without taking a breath. Neither approach leads a listener to truly understand the big idea. Some of this can be solved by working on your pitch regularly to ensure that your delivery is tight and compelling. But for some organizations, the ultimate solution is to own it that your mission doesn't fit on a postage stamp. You can craft a "teaser" that will encourage people to learn more when they have the time to sincerely explore.

2. Internal jargon and the pursuit of perfection. In an effort to have the world's most well-thought-out mission statement, many organizations involve their whole staff in massive vision setting conferences where they edit, tweak, and build the mission collaboratively. That leads to a very well processed, hyper-perfected mission that usually has too many commas, qualifiers, and internal language elements to ever be understood by a newcomer. Stop the madness. If someone needs to hear the mission twice in order to understand it, it's too complicated. Break it down to its core, and ask yourself what you truly stand for, what problem you're solving, why that matters, and what your solution is. Ask outsiders to review it and say back their interpretation. If people can't understand your mission statement, it doesn't serve its purpose.

3. Board members, staff members, supporters, and partners need to be coached. The leader of the organization is hardly the only mouthpiece. It is worthwhile to train all members of an organization, and to spend time on donor education, partner education, etc. You'd be surprised how often I've heard a board member describe the organization they represent in a way that would make the Executive Director cringe. Engage in whole-org pitch practice and take the time to unearth and understand where people are getting things almost right. Board members want to be smart representatives who are up-to-speed on the latest organizational thinking. Invest the effort in developing their skill and knowledge. And model the most up-to-date version of your pitch regularly so that your extended team can grow alongside you.

4. Shifts in approach. As organizations grow, their missions develop to respond to their new understandings of the issues they're tackling. Yet as those shifts happen, the rest of the world isn't privy to the conversation. Retraining the outside world about your new way of thinking is a massive strategic effort that needs to be unfolded thoughtfully. Organizations would learn so much from surveying their partners and constituents. Ask open-ended questions like, "Explain our mission in your own words", and "What issue are we trying to solve, and what is our strategy?" You might learn that your constituents are still telling over the 1995 version of your mission...and then you'll know how to bring them up to speed.

5. Frequent turnover and lack of historical context. Non-profits can struggle with historical perspective because of turnover at the highest levels. New leaders will often assume that donors, partners, and staff members are more aligned to the mission than they actually are. Because new leaders lack valuable historical context themselves, they may not know how the mission has evolved over time. As a result, if they hear someone sharing a slightly outdated version, they may not pick up on the nuances, understand where the misinformation came from, or know how to best correct it. As a leader you need to understand not only your current mission, but the history behind it. Speak with veterans of your organization (even those who no longer work there) to get the full picture.

6. Fear of correcting people when they get it wrong. It takes guts to address misunderstandings. At times, people are passionate about their understanding of an organization, and they might even like their version of the mission better than the real version. It can be risky to unearth the errors and correct them because it can lead people to feel more confused or even misled. But go for it. (Tactfully and privately.) It's better to have fewer supporters who truly understand what you do, than hoards of supporters who actually don't get you at all.

7. Too much talking, not enough listening. When organizational leaders go on a pitch meeting, they often spend a lot of time...well...pitching. They don't take the time to check for understanding. It's so important to walk away from a meeting knowing how much of the mission someone truly understands, and which parts need future follow-up.

If your organization struggles with mission misunderstandings, take a good hard look at your pitch, the training you've offered to your extended team, and the shifts your organization has taken over time. You can lead people to an elevated understanding, but it may take a little simplifying, aligning, and listening first.


* Teach For America is building a massive network of leaders who have committed themselves to addressing educational inequity. Their members teach for a minimum of two years in low-income communities, and the impact of their 37,000 alumni is now transforming the ed-reform world.
** Ashoka has built a network of nearly 3000 of the world's best social entrepreneurs to help strengthen the impact of those who are changing the world and to help all people become changemakers.
***According to their website, "The Posse Foundation identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. The Foundation extends to these students the opportunity to pursue personal and academic excellence by placing them in supportive, multicultural teams--Posses--of 10 students.".