Essentialism: Keeping Your Organization Out Of The Graveyard


Often, we have moments that cause everything to shift. For me, that moment was at a gas station in Zimbabwe. A one-minute encounter with a starving orphan literally changed my future. I wanted to help; I wanted to do good and do it well.

I spent a year researching and studying social good organizations that were making a big difference. I studied everyone, from the new, hip guys at charity:water, with their world class branding, and Warby Parker, with their world class products and marketing. Others, like Compassion and Food for the Hungry, raise massive amounts of cash with an equally massive impact, and they’ve been doing hard work for decades. Other smaller, newer groups like Love146 and Noonday, are doing amazing work but have not been around for as long.

All of these organizations are making a big a difference in the world.

The Nonprofit Graveyard

At the same time, I would meet with other organizations, led by big dreamers with a passion to change the world. But often, that passion didn’t translate to growth and impact. Eventually, these dreams would go the graveyard–a lost opportunity to do good. These stories always break my heart. I want to help leaders succeed in their mission to do good.

I often would ask myself,  “Why? Why do some organizations thrive, while others die? Why do some organizations grow, while other stay stale and struggle?”

While there are many possible reasons, I think I can honestly say the biggest reason is simple: the organizations that developed the clearest vision, a streamlined strategy, and focused outcomes succeeded at much higher levels. Leaders who are able to say “No” to good opportunities and “Yes” to only the most important opportunities are the ones who created the biggest impact and saw the biggest growth.

Growing organizations consistently had leaders who chose to focus on clear outcomes, spent their capital to create powerful momentum, and at the same time, controlled their costs and time (which creates a much more efficient organization). Momentum and efficiency almost always equaled sustained growth.

What is the ONE thing these leaders have in common? They bought into the idea of essentialism.

What is Essentialism?

The summer of 2014, I picked up this book. I didn’t so much read it as much as I devoured it. Page after page, the words kept haunting me; I felt my soul begin to shift. I saw the key mistakes that I was making as a CEO of a young nonprofit. We had growth on our side, but lacked efficiency. No doubt–we would have eventually crashed into a wall and caused all sorts of damage.

Big hearts must be connected to big minds to create big impact. (Tweet that) I knew I needed to keep our organization as simple and as focused as possible. I knew that if we wanted to grow, I would have to say “No” to a lot of amazing opportunities and only say “Yes” to the most important ones. As the author would say, I had to dismantle the yes bomb and create a more disciplined culture.

The separation of those who do good for the long haul and those who have to close up shop or burn out along the way is the difference between scattered and focused. Often, we fail because we run of out fuel (both physical energy and capital), before we reach the next gas station. (Tweet that)

The WHY Determines the WHAT

WHY are you doing what you are doing? The WHY is that conviction that creates the drive and passion to do something. The WHY is what gets your blood boiling. The WHY is core to your calling and identity. But the WHY needs a guardrail or the vision can easily become derailed. The WHY needs a WHAT.

Essentialism helps you keep focused on the WHY and not be overwhelmed by the WHAT.

We know why we do what we do. But, WHAT are we going to do is the vehicle; the WHY is the gas. So, if you are like me–you know your WHY. But those who have embraced essentialism also know and stay focused on the WHAT.


  • An essentialist knows what they are supposed to be doing and not doing–to what to say “yes” and “no.”
  • An essentialist becomes a master at saying “no” and creating a culture of deep focus. They know that time is their greatest way to make an impact and to prove their worth to their calling and vision.
  • An essentialist is addicted to clarity. (Tweet that)

For so many–they know their WHY, but they struggle with the WHAT.

  • A non-essentialist is scattered, confused, and lost.
  • A non-essentialist does not understand key data and metrics.
  • A non-essentialist is constantly chasing. The wind blows them here, there, and everywhere. They’re desperate to pay the bills and their staff, and raise capital for impact. They hustle, but the hustle is so scattered that it has no way to make a longterm impact.
  • A non-essentialist is trying to make an impact in too many areas. They end up making no impact at all. (Tweet that)

Over the course of the next month or so, I’m going to dig deep into this idea of essentialism, especially for those who are building organizations that are focused on doing good. Check back next week, or add my feed to your RSS reader. Better yet-sign up to get my blog posts sent directly to your inbox.

The next four Mondays, I will tackle the following topics:

1) Dismantling the Yes Bomb

2) Making Decisions That Create Momentum

3) Silencing The Critic

4) Settling Into the Journey

I am excited to share this journey with you. I hope that this series will be a great help to both leaders of organizations and everyday people that want to streamline their lives to make a greater impact on the world around them.

I send a newsletter, Put This In Your Pocket, every Friday. These newsletters will have key articles on essentialism, leadership, and a quick nugget about the monthly topic. Please–sign up here to receive that fresh in your inbox every weekend. Note: this email list is different than my blog list; please join both lists if you would like to receive both emails. 

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About The Author

I’m the Founder/CEO of Help One Now. I live in downtown Raleigh with my family. I’m a justice advocate, who loves empowering leaders (and tribes) to launch movements for doing good.

Would love to connect on Twitter or Facebook. Check out my monthly newsletter. Sign up to receive my blog posts via e-mail.

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