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Purpose @ work: Working in the sector might not be ‘good’ enough

I recently posed this question on a LinkedIn conversation: “Is purpose @ work really a thing?” I’ve got to admit, I was really thinking about people who do not work in the social sector when I asked the question.

Purpose is the new zeitgeist, and for those of us in the sector, we know that we are already a step ahead in terms of happiness at work. Or are we?

After 25 years of social sector strategic advice, it has become my view that for effective execution of strategy, leaders must tap into the individual purpose of teams and build connection and trust by showing them how individual purpose can be aligned to organisational mission and purpose.

Even after this experience, I guess I was assuming that just because you work in the social sector, it means you instantly get purpose in your work. I was going along the lines that the rest of the world is catching up with this idea of purpose at work.

The conversations in the LinkedIn feed were really interesting. The first responses told me those who worked in and around the social sector felt strongly that purpose was a very important part of their work and life, and that they would not go back to a workplace that lacked this.

But, as is always the case in a group dialogue, the sceptics soon had me asking a question: while social impact, change and justice are key drivers for where we work, do each of us actually feel aligned to our organisation’s social purpose?

Just because we work in a not-for-profit, philanthropic office, social enterprise or government agency, does this mean we feel the warmth of purpose in our work life?

In our sector, we see purpose as a driver for what we do and how we do it. Yet do we actually set about to link our personal purpose to our employer’s purpose? Have you taken the time and done the work to check whether your personal purpose aligns to that of the organisation you work for? Should you be working elsewhere?

I asked some more questions of my network about this link. It immediately became clear that long-term social sector careers saw people work in different areas of the sector and that the general feeling of working for others was more important than working for a specific organisation that dealt with particular social issues.

This is where the interesting notion of ‘general’ versus ‘specific’ purpose came to mind.

Science tells us that performance is built on connection to those around us. While a ‘general’ purpose alignment is connective tissue, ‘specific’ purpose alignment is the strong organisational muscle that powers trust, outcomes and performance.

Imagine an organisation full of people who are not only purpose aligned, but also aligned to exactly the same purpose.

We need people more than plans and we need to mobilise people authentically. Harnessing the general feeling of purpose into the specific purpose of the organisation is probably the most important job a leader can do.

On one final note, when we’re helping organisations diversify their income and create sustainable business models, our job is to come up with revenue streams to help with untied funds. With over 200 of these projects under our belt, we have noticed a link between organisations that have tightly illustrated the link between their purpose and the individual purpose of their leaders.

This alignment usually means they are more likely to be brave by venturing into new product and revenue streams which ensures financial resilience. It also demonstrates the correlation between purpose alignment and impact and financial resilience of the organisation.

So, what do we do? Have an authentic conversation with your teams and translate exactly how you can make this ‘specific’ purpose link.

Is purpose at work really a thing? It is! It’s probably the key to high performance in the not-for-profit sector.

LinkedIn with me and join the conversation.

About the author

George Liacos is the Managing Director of Spark Strategy, a social impact advisory firm that works with not-for-profits, social enterprises, government, corporates and philanthropy. For over two decades, George has advised on strategy, business models and system transformation.

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