The head of a foundation conducts a site visit at a home for single young mothers. After the tour, she sits with staff and a board member, firing questions at them. They answer well until she asks, “What’s the most important aspect of your work?” The clock’s ticking fills the room. The board member squirms. Finally, the director clears her throat and fills the silence by saying, “Helping the women to obtain more education.”
This nonprofit provides a slew of services for women and their children including housing, counseling, childcare, food, and life skills classes. However, supporting the academic education of young mothers is the service that changes the lives of the women and their children the most and for the longest time. Education for these young mothers is this nonprofit’s sacred essential.
Sacred essentials are the one or two “must-do” actions of your work that create the majority of results. They are not unique to nonprofits. Southwest Airline’s sacred essential is keeping airplanes in the air. Their business model revolves around this essential. Since Southwest doesn’t make money when its airplanes are on the ground, they always buy the same planes with the same seat arrangements. They teach customers to line up in A, B, and C boarding groups, board quickly, and clean up the airplane before they land, all to maximize flying time.
Recently, H. Melvin Ming, President, and CEO of Sesame Workshop spoke on the topic, “Four Decades of Making a Difference.” (Watch it here.) In his talk, he shared several key Sesame Street fundamentals, including be repetitive, be entertaining, flex with changing needs, and measure what you do. Woven into his message was Sesame Streets’ sacred essential: use media to meet the educational needs of children.
What is your sacred essential? Can your board, staff, and volunteers easily articulate it? Or does the question leave people squirming, uncomfortable, and silent? Stripped of any conveniences you provide, brilliant branding, and popular events, which activity reflects the essence of your work? If you could only do one thing, what would you do?
Why Are Sacred Essentials So Important?
Your sacred essential is your Polaris or North Star. To maximize results that matter and to save time and resources, every successful organization employs its sacred essential. When used well, a sacred essential is a sieve you use to sort as many actions as possible before undertaking them. For established nonprofits, knowing your sacred essential or essentials comes first. Knowing your scared essential comes before strategy development or planning and, hopefully, action. They are the cornerstone of your work.
Sacred essentials dictate when push comes to shove (and it does a lot), how to best invest your limited time and resources to create the life-changing mission results you seek. In the home for unwed mothers, helping young mothers with their education resulted in multiple long-term benefits. These included helping the women to improve their own income and thus their children’s standard of living, empowering the women to taking more control of their lives, become better parents, improve decision-making and to set priorities, and all of the related “girt effects” research now shows us.
How does a scared essential work in practice? At home, a young mother announces to the staff that she has a great new job offer. It will pay more than minimum wage. However, to take it she must give up the pursuit of her AA degree unless the home’s childcare hours can be extended. Knowing the sacred essential, the staff figures out how to keep her on the AA track, even though it means flexing long-standing childcare rules.
How else do sacred essentials impact organizations? Here is more information about two specific areas where I have seen huge benefits from my work with nonprofits.
Time Management Relief: We all have too much to do. Time shortage is the most popular cultural malady of them all. You can get relief. I can help you find your scared essential and use it to choose actions that provide you with the most sacred essential per hour. While every time decision will not contain a sacred essential, every working day you can choose actions that support your sacred essential. If anyone on staff is not contributing to the sacred essential, their jobs need to be reorganized.
By choosing the actions that include sacred essentials, you will soon start to identify stuff to skip. If a donor only gave one check twenty years ago — is there a reason to still take their frequent telephone calls when you might be reaching out to new donors instead? Of all that is on your desk, what is the most important thing to accomplish? Stop reading this article and look. What is the most important thing to accomplish today? Looking at your calendar. Circle the most important thing this week. It’s probably not the easiest thing to do. It’s probably not checking your email or answering the telephone. Steven Covey reminds us that the urgent is the enemy of the important. Knowing and choosing your scared essentials whenever possible is one of the world’s best time-management tools. Your organization can learn how to do more with less by doing more actions with sacred essentials content.
Budget Relief: Time, of course, is only one resource your nonprofit invests in its work. To create your mission, your nonprofit also invests funding and other resources. Like with time, when you build your investments around your sacred essential you buy more of what is important. For an innovative example of how this works, read my July Profitable Nonprofit column. It shares an example of one nonprofit that used their sacred essential to create a new program with huge cost savings and remarkable outcomes. Their story illustrates how a focus on a sacred essential solves budget woes and creates new opportunities. If you design your budget around your scared essentials, you will accomplish more with less of your nonprofit funds.
What are your sacred essentials? Knowing them and choosing actions that support them holds the potential to change your nonprofit for better and reduce time and budget challenges, big results for a few small, well-chosen words. Knowing your sacred essentials gives you the joy of knowing, without question, that you are doing the most important aspects of your work. Contact us today to identify your sacred essentials or find ways to incorporate them into your work.
For more answers, check out this Nonprofit CEO Library.
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