“What do you do?”

That was the opening question at my Harvard Business School course on Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management. How many times a day do you get asked this question? I had already answered it at least 20 times today as I met the other students in the class. As part of the registration process we had all described what our charities do, and now the prof had gone through our answers and pre-selected who he wanted to ask this question of, “What do you do?” Most of the people answered with a description of their services or programs.

You’ll remember the story often told of a person walking by a construction site and asking three workers what they are doing. One says, “I’m cementing these stones together.” Another says, “I’m building a wall.” And the third says, “I’m building a cathedral!” The story is always told with the point that the correct answer is the third one.

“That depends!”

The surprising thing I learned today was that you need several answers to the question “What do you do?” because the answer depends on who’s asking. It turns out that all three answers from the construction site are quite okay. Here’s how you decide how to describe what you do.

A logic model helps

Start with a logic model, which shows how you move from inputs to activities to outputs to outcomes to impacts. This chain, stretching from inputs to impacts, has some characteristics as you move along it:

  • You move from the present into the future
  • The descriptions at each stage become less concrete and more abstract
  • It becomes more difficult to measure the effects of what you are doing
  • It becomes much harder to prove that you had a causal effect on whatever it is that you can measure, and on a positive note
  • What you say becomes more motivational and inspirational.

The key point the professor made was that before answering the question, “What do you do?”, you must decide where you want to be in the logic chain with the person asking the question.

  • An activity-based answer might suffice for a potential supplier trying to understand how they can help you.
  • A donor might want an outcomes-based answer because they want to have some way of evaluating what their donation accomplished. While they want to impact society, most donors cannot wait a few generations to see what the impact will be. Even if they did wait, how can they (or you) know whether your charity had a causal linkage to the results?
  • A potential employee, however, by choosing to work in a ministry, is devoting his or her life to doing what they can to contribute to changing the world. They will be highly motivated by an impacts-based answer. Just as donors do, employees want to know that what they are doing is making a difference, but their commitment to the cause is based on the impact that working for you will have on the world.

So, you might think about at least a few different answers to the question, “What do you do?”

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Thoughts on “So, what do you do?”

  1. Jessica Pellowe

    These are great points! It’s important to really consider who is asking the question and what type of answer they are looking for, because I’m sure we all know what it’s like to ask a question and get a *different* answer from what we were hoping (either too brief, or way too detailed…).

    So… How would you answer these three questions for what YOU do? Think broader than CCCC – how would you answer these questions for yourself as a person?


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