“Justify Your Existence:” Peeling Back the Layers of an Onion

If you’re a Gen-Xer, like me, you probably remember the print edition of The Onion, the groundbreaking satirical newspaper that started at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in the 1990s and spread to college towns throughout the US, before eventually becoming an online satirical news outlet.

As a student in Madison in the ’90s, I have fond memories of picking up the weekly Onion and leafing through the farcical headlines. Long before memes and viral videos, The Onion was our source for everyday hilarity.

In every edition there was an interview segment called, simply, “Justify your Existence.” The interviewer would ask local and national bands, “why should you exist?”

What resulted was page-long responses from musicians who were forced to step outside of their comfort zone and ask the uncomfortable question of what value their band and their music brought to the world. 

Reading these responses, which were often surprisingly introspective and insightful, I reflected on the power of asking a simple question. The process of asking a deep and probing question such as, “why should you exist?” can very well lead to more self awareness, and, ultimately, a better product — in this case, music. 

After all, the bands and musicians that responded to this interview question, were, like all of us, consumed with the day-to-day of the work. In-group dynamics and the logistics of keeping the band viable as a business can sometimes get in the way of the big picture. A band, like any organization, can breed a sense of myopia, since the daily grind of working  in the organization leaves little time for working on the organization. 

In an increasingly complex world, non-profit organizations exist to achieve big, bold goals. But getting to that big aspirational impact requires strategy.

As a consultant to non-profit organizations, I begin the strategic planning process with a series of questions. Why do we exist? What impact are we trying to have?

And, like layers of an onion, these questions lead to more questions.

What is the lever, or levers, that your organization pulls to achieve the change that you want to see in the world? Why is your organization uniquely suited to pull that lever? What resources to you need to ensure that you can continue to effectively pull that lever? 

Answering the question “why do we exist?” is a starting point. Where it ends up is often a better place for the organization itself and the people it serves. 

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