By Nell Derick Debevoise, Founder & CEO of Inspiring Capital
Anyone who’s worked at a nonprofit, or interacted with nonprofit staff, understands the difficult conditions of their work. They - generally speaking - lack basic resources in terms of technology, equipment, professional development and management as a result of inadequate bandwidth and/or capacity. And yet, nonprofit staff are among the most dedicated, hard-working, engaged and motivated workers in the workforce.
This engagement can be explained by the power of purpose. When you go to work to solve a social or environmental problem, it’s easier to overlook how much more money you could earn for a similar level of effort. You’re more willing to ask a friend to lend their conference room for an upcoming event that you can’t possibly host at your poorly-furnished, far-flung office. There’s a compelling reason to teach yourself to reconcile statements in QuickBooks when accounting gets added to your list of responsibilities.
Once you sign up to work toward an organizational mission that’s clear enough to be validated by the IRS, it’s amazing what working conditions you’ll accept. Even if each person has a slightly different understanding of the mission, or reason for wanting to contribute, office politics feel petty compared to that larger purpose. Decisions have more urgency when they determine someone’s physical well-being. Getting a little more expert advice, or reading a few more articles about best practice, feels worthwhile if it means real-live people are served better, rather than selling 6% more widgets at 4% higher margins.
This is not to say that all nonprofits are paragons of productivity. Or that for-profit employees have no reason to engage deeply with their work. But any job can be done with a wide range of quality and effort. And having a unifying ‘why’ behind that work is the surest way to facilitate engagement, which leads to productivity. Even the best employees need a compelling reason to put in the effort required to design, build and manage products and services that customers want in today’s constantly changing markets.
The good news is that we each have a different personal ‘why’ that’s as distinct as our fingerprints. Nonprofits don’t have a monopoly on purpose - to the contrary. For a healthier, more equitable society, we need to find purpose across the economy, in all industries. It’s just a matter of connecting the dots for private sector professionals between their work and its ultimate outcome in society. For example, underwriting or managing loans to finance small businesses ultimately improves wealth distribution, job creation and neighborhood regeneration. Designing and distributing affordable and responsibly sourced athletic wear can empower girls and women or promote physical health in low-income communities.
There’s a role for nearly all jobs that exist today in a healthy, equitable, prosperous, and regenerative economy. We need bankers, shoemakers, sous-chefs, insurance brokers, hospitality staff, marketing associates. And we need them to do their jobs with purpose, with an understanding of how their work ladders up to the well-being of their communities. It is the responsibility of employers to provide that context of why each individual role, team function, and line of business, matters. Employers that do this successfully will achieve the same sense of purpose that nonprofits enjoy.
For-profit companies are quite far down the road using this ‘power of purpose’ to attract customers. It’s not surprising that they’ve started with this marketing opportunity – by definition, corporates are focused on selling things. However, the most strategic companies are starting to turn this purpose lens internally to understand how it relates to their own employees. The potential is huge for employers who invest the time to help employees find and/or make the connection between their personal sense of purpose and that of their larger team and organization. This investment is not a one-off, and it’s not just an executive memo about the company’s mission or values painted on the office walls. But it’s not rocket science, or prohibitively expensive either.
A commitment to working with purpose has to start from the top, with all leaders around the company from the C-suite to line managers connecting all priorities, assignments, and metrics to the organization’s ultimate purpose. Repetition is an oft-cited but under-used tool of leadership. Amidst today’s information overload, it’s valuable for leaders to repeat why they and their teams are doing what they’re doing regularly. More often than you think you should have to, and especially as you introduce a purpose-driven approach throughout your organization. Start meetings with the largest-level ‘why,’ even if it feels obvious or several levels removed from your tactical agenda. End meetings in the same place. Ask direct reports if they have questions about the purpose of a given assignment or priority, and take the time to answer them.
This leadership focus on the purpose of your work is critical, but not sufficient. Effective purpose-driven organizations also use a bottom-up approach, to engage employees’ personal sense of purpose in that role and beyond, and their understanding of the overall organization’s purpose. Employers need to provide the time and structure for employees to reflect on their ‘why’ and how it fits into the organization in their current role, or not. It’s important to be honest when an employee may not be connecting to the larger purpose, and find ways to fix that, whether a shift in responsibilities, changing roles or teams, or doing a stretch assignment within the organization or as a volunteer. And of course, if there still is no overlap between the employee’s personal purpose and that of the organization, better for all parties to recognize that and move on sooner rather than later.
The best thing you can do as a leader for improved productivity is to align everyone around the overall purpose of what you’re doing, and how it connects to the needs of your community. Then continue to do your own work, and help your people do their work, to refine how your own purpose ladders up to the work of the organization. This clarity is not a substitute for continuing to improve the rest of your organizational operations, but it will go a long way to improving productivity while you adapt with the rest of us to the so-called Future of Work, which we’re already living.