"Everyone in the association must ask themselves why the organization exists so often that the answer is engrained in every decision they make, large and small."

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

1. Describe the importance of Core Purpose
2. Determine if your association’s Core Purpose is emotionally meaningful
3. Explain the consequences of having a risk-averse culture
4. Describe today’s membership culture
5. Describe ways to increase engagement

The task below will be automatically checked off once you complete taking the quiz.



To move an organization forward, everyone must understand and believe in the organization’s fundamental (and ideological) purpose, which we’ll call Core Purpose.

Download your Open Garden Core Purpose Worksheet to help you discover your own organization's Core Purpose.

Core Purpose...

  • is a navigational device against which EVERY choice should be measured
  • tells everyone, inside and outside the organization, WHY they are there
  • tells everyone why they should care about the organization’s work, offering to them something BIGGER than themselves
  • it shouldn’t just explain an organization’s particular function or goals; it should inspire them
  • informs EVERYTHING the organization does, from the high-level planning to the seemingly mundane tasks at the entry-level
  • provides the ANSWER to every dilemma people may face, whether as an individual or as an organization.

Test It

Your Core Purpose needs to be an emotionally meaningful idea to people who are both outside and inside your organization.


Test how emotionally meaningful your Core Purpose is by asking a few simple questions first:
  1. If your organization disappeared tomorrow, who would miss it? Put another way, does your "why" matter to anyone outside your immediate orbit?

2. Ask people outside your organization, "What emotions do you feel when you hear our stated purpose? What does it mean to you?


To meaningfully advance, we must be willing to embrace failure as a way to learn and improve.

No organization desires failure, but the most successful ones are willing to take risks, absorb, learn from failures and then drive hard to a better long term result.

If short term success is demanded at all times and failure is viewed as toxic, then the team is going to do the things they know are unlikely to fail, and that causes you to repeat the past rather than look to the future.


The culture of associations, in general, needs to embrace a willingness to experiment, fail and learn from failure. If your organization is risk-averse, often you will be discouraging members and staff from taking risks, trying new things, listening to new ideas and pushing the organization and its work toward better.


Success often breeds contentment, which makes it harder to seek higher levels of success.


Some organizations are so risk-averse they create more risk to themselves by analyzing every decision for a very long time. Rather than making small, incremental changes, testing them out and seeing what happens, they theorize changes until it’s too late to make them or are no longer unique, innovative or as impactful.


Click each tab to learn how to have a risk-taking culture.

How to implement experimentation


1. Identify what you have influence over.

2. Think about how you can affect change through whatever influence your role affords. There is much more power in the day-to-day folks and the things they do if they think about them the right way. It’s the people on the ground who control the culture of an organization, the figurative sails of the ship.

3. Complete low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments first to determine which ideas will hit the mark and which ones won’t.

4. Once an experiment is successful, allocate more resources to implement the change.


Extrapolating small, successful ideas into huge hits has a much greater impact than does innovation for the sake of innovating.



It’s time to move beyond thinking of just “members” and “non-members.”

Download your Open Garden Worksheet for rethinking your audience.


Click each tab to learn more.


Your organization’s purpose doesn’t just permeate everything your organization does internally; it lays the groundwork for how you communicate with the people inside and outside your organization, quietly setting the stage for what ultimately happens when you do engage with them.

If you have a purpose that’s all about getting people to enter the walled garden, which is membership models, then it becomes a lot harder to think of ways to engage people outside that wall. The purpose you assign yourself or others is the same that’s inevitably given as the reason people should join. In other words, it sets the tone for the relationship even before it begins.

It sends subliminal messages through every interaction you have with your audience, i.e. website design, the association’s media content, interpersonal communications with the staff, who you book for events.

Purpose is alive 24/7/365. It is present at every point of contact an organization has with staff, members and non-members. With that much presence and influence, your ability to hone in on the simplest, most inspiring and thought-provoking focus will determine your chances for successful growth more than anything else. It’s the proverbial foundation of your organization’s staff, leadership, member base, and content.

In other words, without a purpose, there is nothing.



Activities to apply this lesson’s concepts


Click each tab for the activity.

To implement change


Click each tab.

Additional Tools

Download your Open Garden Core Purpose Worksheet to help you discover your own organization’s Core Purpose and your Open Garden Worksheet for rethinking your audience! Save and download or print.


See if you understand the concepts by completing the quiz. Click Why are You Here? Quiz to begin.

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