Abuse scandals. Misappropriated funds. Toxic workplaces. Funding crises. Failed mergers. Closures. Layoffs.
I’m talking there about charities, not profit-hungry corporations. It sometimes feels like chunks of the charity world have lost their way, becoming mired in their internal machinery rather than the reasons they came into being.
Under these threats, it could be easy to become insular and self-protecting or retreat into a niche. But that would be self-defeating.
Instead, those of us working for change, in charities and in growing social enterprises, need to be rediscovering purpose: what we are here to do; and who or what we are doing it for. That’s become a mantra for “purpose led” global businesses like Unilever and Coca-Cola. It should come easily to us. After all, that’s what we’re supposed to be about.
Suzie Hutchinson, CEO of Little Hearts Matter, explained in a recent podcast how having a clear, well-understood purpose is a practical touchstone for her charity. It allows everyone there to consider requests and proposals with a simple question: is this what we’re really here to do? For her organisation, that means focusing finite resources on programmes that help all the children and families affected by single ventricle heart disease. “Helping them all” means that the charity is able to direct its resources effectively towards scalable, national programmes - not local one-offs, that can’t be replicated. And it means focusing on this specific disease – recognising that organisations with a different remit may transmit the work on to other beneficiary groups.
That’s what clarity of purpose allows. It lets energy and resources flow to where they are supposed to go, rather than dissipate. It’s productive and it’s inherently motivating.
It’s the opposite of that famous Monty Python sketch - the 100m race for people with no sense of direction. The starting pistol fires. Everyone runs off every which way.
It’s easy to find ourselves with our heads down, running hard and getting nowhere. There’s a lot of change going on, internally and externally. So we need to come up for air periodically and check we are going the way we needed and intended to go – toward the purpose that breathes life into our work. We need to behave as leaders, communicating a vision, as well as managers, getting work done.
Communicating vision and purpose creates the emotional connection that is necessary for progress and change. As John Kotter, Harvard Business School expert, says: people engage when they “see-feel-change”. For change to succeed, everyone has to internalise the need – the emotional charge – as well as understand the rational reasons. We buy in with our hearts as well as our heads. Great fundraising works in that emotional and visceral way – and that’s how we need to communicate within our teams, for our charities or projects to act with purpose and focus.
For those of us trying to get the job done, this means consciously taking a little time out of each busy working day to talk about why we are doing what we are doing, where we are going and how what we’re doing contributes to that.
Rediscovering purpose is a day-to-day task for changemakers seeking social impact: something that doesn’t stop when we’ve pitched our project, or only gets discussed for an hour of our annual away day. It is the repetition of the story of where we have come from and where we are going, each and every day; reconnecting with why that matters, and with who or what we are doing this all for.