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  • Writer's pictureBraden Swab

"But why?": Uncovering Your Intended Impact

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

While my wife and I have been locked up with three kids under 6 years old during a global pandemic, there has been one word echoing across my household more than any other: “Why?”

Kids love to ask “Why?” And then, upon hearing the answer, they ask a deep, insightful follow-up question: “Why?”

And on and on it goes.

While it eventually starts to get on my nerves when my kids do it (we’re locked up together during a pandemic and inside a lot due to our Canadian winter, give me some grace!), repeatedly asking “Why?”, like a persistent child often does, is a great way to determine the root motivation and the intended impact for your potential capital project.

In the last post, we talked about identifying and affirming your values. If you haven’t already, go back and read that post. Identifying and affirming your values should be done first. You’ll see why in Step 6 of the exercise below.

In this post, we are talking about identifying high-level goals for your potential construction project (new building, expansion, renovation, etc.). We’re still not talking about the “What?” (what you’re going to build) or the “How?” (how you’re going to get it done) …we’re still nailing down your “Why?”

At this point, I am assuming that you or your committee have a basic understanding of some of the more superficial needs of your organization. Here, we want to use those superficial needs to identify and unite around your true, underlying needs.


Action Step: The Five Whys Exercise

The “Five Whys” technique is typically used to identify the root cause of a problem or issue. It is a relatively quick exercise that, when done right, can help problem-solvers avoid simply treating the symptom of a much deeper problem. It was initially developed by Toyota to identify to root cause of problems in its manufacturing process.

However, instead of using this technique to determine the root cause of an issue, you’re going to use it here to determine the root motivation of each superficial need you identify. You will then compare each root motivation to the values you identified and affirmed the last exercise, and use them to create impact statements.

So, here's how to walk your team through the "Five Whys":

Step 1: Gather your team

This should include key decision-makers, relevant program managers, board/committee members, and other staff or volunteers as you see fit (though ideally not more than 8-10 people). This exercise is best completed in-person if possible, using a "Low-Tech/High-Touch" tool like a whiteboard or flip chart.

Step 2: Identify and agree on 1-5 obvious/superficial needs

These should be needs that could be addressed through new or modified facilities (though this exercise can be applied to other areas of your organization as well). Write a short “need statement” for each need your team wants to explore.

This list does not need to be exhaustive, nor are your committing to any specific project direction. Keep your need statements simple and unjustified (i.e. don’t skip to the “Why?” yet). A few examples:

  • We need a larger meeting space

  • We need more classrooms for Sunday School

  • We need more outdoor activity spaces

  • We need a less-congested drop-off / pick-up location

  • We need to make our recreation space more accessible for seniors and people with disabilities

Step 3: Choose a “facilitator”

The facilitator will be responsible for:

  • Writing on the whiteboard

  • Keeping the conversation moving forward (don't get stuck for too long on one topic)

  • Ensuring the group remains positive

  • Helping resolve conflict, and

  • Soliciting agreement and unity among the group at each level

Step 4: Choose a need

Pick one of your needs statements to analyze first, and have the facilitator write it on the top of your whiteboard or flip chart. You may want to prioritize your list from Step 2 if you are unsure about whether or not you’ll have enough time to get to them all.

Step 4: Ask “Why?”

For the first time, in response to the need statement written on the whiteboard, ask yourselves, “Why?”, and write your answer underneath the need statement. The team should reach consensus on the answer.

Step 5: Ask “Why?” four more times

Read the answer to the previous "Why?" and ask yourselves "Why?" again. This may sound simple, but coming up with answers become more and more difficult as you go deeper. It may be tempting to reach “Why?” #3 or #4 and give up, thinking you’ve reached a true end. But…push through and do your best to get to the fifth “Why?”

Step 6: Compare the result with your values

Circle the answer to your fifth and final “Why?” question. As a group, discuss how this aligns with your values and the direction of your organization. If it doesn’t, ask “Why?” again: "Why is there a gap between our values and the motivation behind this identified need?" Any gaps will likely take additional time to address.

Step 7: Create an impact statement

Use your final circled answer to create a short statement about the outcome, or impact, that you would want any potential solution to your identified need to have. Imagine what the future would look like if this need was addressed successfully.

Step 8: Repeat with each need in your list

Ensure that you monitor the overall engagement level of your group. If you sense a drop in energy or a lack of participation as the meeting goes on, it may be best to wrap it up and continue a different day.

Step 9: Collect, document, and distribute your impact statements

Create a one-page document (which will go well with your “Guided Values Discussion” summary document from the previous post) with all of your impact statements. This should present a vivid, value-driven vision of the future your team wants to see realized.


Below is a simple example, using a fictional camp/retreat centre, of one “Five Whys” cycle:

Need: We need more sleeping space


Because we would like to be able to accommodate larger rental groups


Because we would like to increase our revenue from group rentals


Because increased revenue would allow us to further subsidize summer camp fees for kids whose families can’t afford to pay full camp fees.


Because we believe that all young people deserve to have access to impactful camping experiences.


Because our summer camp experiences provide immense value to kids by teaching them life skills, improving their social skills, encouraging physical activity, and developing lasting friendships. No one should miss out on these experiences due to lack of financial resources.

Impact Statement: We believe that summer camp experiences provide immense value to kids by teaching them life skills, improving their social skills, encouraging physical activity, and developing lasting friendships. At our camp, no one will have to miss out on these experiences due to lack of financial resources.


Notice that in the impact statement, you are not linking the intended impact back to the identified need. With this exercise, you are still refining and understanding your organization's collective “Why?”

You’re identifying your true, underlying needs. Not your surface needs. You do not want to limit the ways in which you could potentially create this impact at this point in the process.

Take the example in the exercise above. Are new sleeping spaces (or even increased revenue from rental groups) the only way to achieve the impact outlined in the impact statement? Not likely! The real need here is not for more sleeping spaces, but for equal access to beneficial camp experiences for families with lower financial capacity.

The key here is that you “get to the bottom of” what you truly want to see happen in the community you serve. This will help you and your team set strategic goals with a clear and open mind. Eventually, you can use these "unbounded" impact statements to brainstorm alternatives and decide which are most feasible and economical for your organization. You aren’t using the end to justify the means, you are using the end to evaluate the best means.

So learn from my kids! Ask “Why?”

Over, and over, and over, and over, and over again.



Braden Swab is the founder and sole operator of Tree Stream Consulting. After more than seven years helping international charities design and plan their facilities with a Canadian charity called Engineering Ministries International (EMI), Braden is using what he learned to help non-profits in North America. He is a passionate problem-solver, advocate, and story-teller.

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