Does your solution align with the problem?

When making the case for your organization’s work, it’s important that you can clearly and convincingly articulate the problem. In my experience, most organizations can paint a vivid picture of what’s wrong (though some struggle to talk about why it matters) but a common mistake I see is a misalignment of the problem and the solution.

Misalignment of the problem and the solution occurs when the solution presented does not clearly solve the problem as it’s described. For example:

  • The problem is defined as hunger in a city due to a lack of housing and employment options. The solution? To provide food through a food bank. This is a short-term, immediate remedy but it doesn’t address the housing and employment issues stated in the problem.
  • The problem is defined as widespread deforestation happening as a result of the advancing agricultural frontier, displaced communities, and encroaching industries. The solution? To engage local communities in planting trees. This solution adds trees back to the forest, but does not respond to the larger issues driving the problem (nor does it do so at the scale of the problem).
  • The problem is defined as a declining interest by children in science due to the way schools and assessments direct educators to teach science-related subjects. The solution? A project-based curriculum that teaches students about science in a more engaging way. This solution does provide an alternative that achieves the intended goal, but it doesn’t take into account the factors that are preventing teachers from using the same approach in their classes in the first place.

In these examples, you can see how the problem could be well-described in a compelling narrative. And the solutions – all of which are good, necessary ideas – could be clearly explained in terms of goals, strategies, and execution. However, the linkage between the solutions and their respective problems is weak or missing.

When you describe the problem, you should frame it in a way that sets up your organization’s solution. Make it clear to the reader or listener why your solution is necessary, appropriate, and logical. Ideally, with a theory of change and a clear strategic plan, you can clarify both the problem and your organization’s response. But another quick-and-dirty fix is to work backwards: take a look at the work you do, and think about what problem it is directly responding to. The work is done to solve a specific problem, so make your problem statement a description of what your work is designed to achieve.

The work your organization is doing is important, but you have to be able to articulate it to others if you want the support you need to get it done. Learn to align your problem statement with your work so others can easily understand the value of what you do.


Why should I support you?

Time and time again I encounter organizations who cannot articulate their unique value. They can talk at length about the work they do and why it’s important, but they don’t have a solid argument for why their work deserves support over all the others out there. 

If there were no other organizations out there doing similar work, you wouldn’t need to say why you’ve chosen the work you’re doing nor tell me why you’re the one best suited to do it. But in a world where lots of organizations are doing similar and even overlapping work, and where donors and funders have access to many options for their dollars, why should anyone support you instead of someone else?

Think about the way for-profit businesses try to distinguish themselves from the competition. Verizon has the most extensive network. AT&T has the fastest network. Sprint has the cheapest plans. All three overlap in their work but they have found ways to distinguish themselves from the competition and answer the question: why you?

Look, I’m not a fan of competition, but that’s the reality. There are other organizations working on the same issue as yours. They have made a case for why their work is important, so why should I support you over them? Donors have a limited capacity to give, and oftentimes a limited willingness to give to unfamiliar organizations. What’s your argument for why you – your approach, your work, and your qualifications – are worthy of support?

Quite honestly, some organizations are doing redundant work and donors are better off giving their money to someone with more experience and expertise. But many organizations are doing great, important work – they just don’t communicate how they provide a unique value to solving the problem

Every organization should be able to say why they are doing their work and why they are best suited to do it. Your organization has chosen a particular approach to the problem, one that you believe will succeed. Why did your organization choose its approach, out of all the different possible approaches? Why is your approach the better or most valuable one to take? And why are you the best suited to do this work and succeed?

Here’s a few possible ways to answer these questions and set yourself apart:

  • We are distinctly different. Others may be taking a similar approach, but there is a distinct element to your approach that makes it more valuable and/or more likely to succeed. Here you would need to describe how your approach is different and better for solving the problem.
  • We’re filling a gap. No one else is taking the approach you are but there is a strong need for it. You would have to demonstrate why your approach is necessary, and how the problem won’t get solved without it. 
  • We’re engaging a critical audience. You are using an approach used by others but working with a group that no one else is addressing. You would need to show that this audience is essential to the cause.
  • We have unique expertise. You may take the same approach as others but you have a unique skill set that makes you more qualified to succeed. For this argument, you would need to clearly demonstrate that your organization’s expertise is distinct and superior to others.
  • We have a proven record. You may have chosen the same approach as others but you have done a better job at achieving results. You would need to demonstrate concrete and measurable differences between your accomplishments and others like you.

In a competitive landscape, it’s not just about why what you do is important, but why what you do is more valuable than other options. Are you a Verizon or an AT&T? What makes you stand above the rest? What makes you more likely to succeed? And why should someone support you over all the other organization’s in your field?

Whether you like it or not, there’s competition for others’ support. So know your unique value and make sure to communicate it as clearly and as often as possible.

What organizations can learn from Trump

Regardless of what you think about him, the fact is that Donald Trump has stunned everyone. He has lasted longer as a presidential candidate than anyone presumed, and he has garnered far more support among the Republican base than anticipated. His brash, off-the-cuff, anger-driven style has resonated with a lot of people, and it has gotten him more attention and media coverage than all other candidates combined.

Whether or not he wins the Republican nomination or even the presidency, there’s a lot to be learned from his performance during this campaign season. Organizations seeking to build a larger base of support for their work or their cause should take notes from Trump’s success – and his failures. Here are some key lessons to consider:

  • Have a strong brand. There’s no doubt that Trump has a strong brand. Just the mention of his name conjures a certain impression of the man, what he represents, and the kind of experience he creates. The strong emotional responses that people have to him are indicative of his distinct style and presence.
  • Keep it simple. Carnegie Mellon University did an analysis of Trump’s campaign speeches and found that they contain language commonly spoken by children ages 11 and under. His overall vocabulary ranked around the level of an eighth grader. Is it no wonder that he has been able to reach so many people? Too often organizations use words or syntax that are difficult to understand, which keeps people from connecting with or supporting them. Keep your language simple so people have no trouble agreeing with you.
  • Tap into emotions and values. Trump has run for president before, but this time he has gotten much further in his pursuit, and that’s in large part because he has tapped into the anger and frustration of a lot of Americans. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of anger and frustration about the economy, immigration, terrorism, and our government. People respond to Trump (and similarly to Bernie Sanders) because he speaks out about these issues and he shares their feelings. What he says about immigrants, terrorists, politicians, and the economy reflects their own feelings and it resonates with them. Organizations wanting to grow and engage their own bases of support should similarly find ways to tap into their audiences’ emotions and values, and show how their work will benefit the things they care about.
  • Be authentic. A lot of people connect with Trump because he tells it like it is (in their view, anyway). They admire him for side-stepping political correctness and just speaking his mind, unfiltered. This is a big contrast to most politicians, who measure their words carefully and, as a result, come across as duplicitous or untrustworthy. Though organizations should probably be culturally sensitive to avoid the kind of negative attention that Trump has garnered (see the last point below), they should strive to be honest, straightforward, and true to their values in their work and their communications.
  • Be consistent. Trump is consistent in his style and personality, which reinforces his brand. Consistency also breeds trust and loyalty, because people know what to expect from him, and this in turn reinforces the relationships he’s built with supporters. On the other hand, he has not been very consistent in his policy positions, and though he has dismissed such accusations, it has caused problems for him. People find the inconsistencies in what he says to be cause for mistrust – someone who says two different things is less predictable and therefore less trustworthy – and such mistrust erodes your base of support. Organizations should be sure to be consistent in both their brand – their presence, personality, and messages – and their positions – what they stand for and believe in. If you dramatically or frequently change your brand or positions, you will lose some supporters, and it will make it harder for you to gain new ones.
  • Don’t be afraid to turn people away. If you’re going to have a strong brand that is authentic, taps into people’s emotions, and takes a hard position on the issues, you’re bound to say things that will turn people away. And that’s okay. If you’re trying to appeal to everyone, you’re probably appealing to no one, because you end up washing out your brand and your messaging by taking too many positions or dampening your language too much. Organizations should be confident in what they stand for and be comfortable communicating as much, even though there may be people who disagree with them. The people who disagree are not your target audience, and trying to appeal to them means you risk losing those who do agree with you by downplaying or moving away from what they care about. You probably don’t want as many people hating you as Trump has, but don’t feel that you need to appeal to all those who disagree with you either.
  • Back up your word. One of Trump’s weaknesses is that while he has an opinion about a lot of things, he doesn’t really have any evidence to support his positions. This makes him vulnerable to attacks from those who disagree with him. Organizations who will take positions on issues should be able to support their claims and justify their rationale with concrete evidence from reliable sources. This not only defends you against any attacks from naysayers, but it builds your case for support – and it makes your organization look more expert and professional.
  • Own up to your missteps. Trump is never shy to boast about his accomplishments, and a big part of his brand appeal is his success as a businessman. However, many have pointed out that many of his so-called successes were actually failures (Trump Steaks, anyone?). Trump refuses to admit any failures or weaknesses, and as a result, some have questioned his qualifications for Executive-In-Chief. After all, a sign of good leadership is accepting responsibility for your mistakes and then learning from them so you don’t repeat them. Similarly, organizations should step up and admit mistakes when they occur, take responsibility for them, and then learn from them so they don’t happen again. No one likes to admit failure, because they think it is shameful and will make people dislike them. But consider the alternative: hiding your failures takes a lot of effort, covering them up makes you vulnerable to those who might uncover them, and ignoring them increases the chances that it will happen again. And denying your failures only to defend them instead will make you look foolish, unprofessional, and untrustworthy. Just look at Trump.
  • Stay positive. Trump was quick to go negative in his campaign – against those he didn’t trust (he insulted Mexicans when he launched his campaign), against anyone he didn’t like (politicians, Obama, Megyn Kelly), against those who didn’t like him (the media), and against his competition (Republican candidates and the Democratic candidates). While those who supported him and his positions may have been energized by such attacks (and his willingness to speak his mind openly), it certainly turned a lot of people off, and it raised questions about whether or not his disposition was appropriate for the office of the President. As noted above, it’s important to stand for what you believe in, but that doesn’t mean you need to take down others too. Staying positive doesn’t mean you can’t talk about problems or crises. In this context it just means not offending or insulting others, including those who disagree with you. Especially in a world where social media and word of mouth can make or break a brand, it’s important that you earn people’s respect by behaving professionally and civilly. It will help you keep those who do support you, get positive attention from those who might support you, and minimize conflict from those who don’t support you.

Love him or hate him, don’t let Donald Trump’s candidacy pass you by without taking away some important lessons. His success and failures are similar to those of many organizations, and like Trump, they will rise or fall because of them.