Introduction - In search for 'Purpose'

In July 2020, Melbourne (Australia) re-entered into Stage 3 lockdown, followed soon after by an even more stringent Stage 4 lockdown that saw people confined not just to their homes, but to a strict 5km radius.

Naturally, this kicked everyone in the teeth. Businesses, schools, communities, families, livelihoods were all significantly disrupted, me included. But one morning, in the sea of: “Here’s what you can’t do” announcements, I remember waking up and just thinking: “What on earth can I do? What is my purpose?” (not the first time, given I’m quite prone to introspection, but most definitely not the last).

Clearly, I wasn’t the only person, given what felt to me like a boom in articles and think pieces around how Covid was giving us time to find purpose, or whether the pandemic will put more ‘Purpose-driven’ businesses at the forefront. Out of curiosity, I also attended a couple of webinars that featured speakers passionately speaking about what it means to run a ‘Purpose-driven’ business.

It was at one of these webinars that I came away with an odd realisation: I had a somewhat different conceptualisation of what ‘purpose’ meant than those presenting.

Why is that a problem?

As someone who has been running and growing a social enterprise (ColourSpace Gallery), being ‘purpose-driven’ to me has taken on a context of social impact and social benefit, whereas what I heard in the webinar felt more like ‘deep personal purpose’, or at least that was my interpretation.

To be crystal clear, I’m not suggesting either is wrong. But what I realised was just how diverse the interpretations were on the topic of being ‘purpose-driven’. I appreciate that might seem a bit trivial at the surface level, but with interest in sustainable investment doubling, a rapidly growing number of new social enterprises, and people now 4 times more likely to purchase from purpose-driven businesses, it felt to me like an important enough concept to warrant more nuance.

The more I read and the more I spoke to people, the more my curiosity was piqued: I wonder what everyone’s perception of being ‘purpose-driven’ is? Do people really think we're becoming more 'purpose-driven’? What's stopping us? Who’s responsible for change? Are businesses just ‘purpose-washing’? And if they are, then what constitutes genuinely ‘demonstrating purpose’?

And so I set about finding out. And besides, what else was I gonna do in lockdown? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

My approach

From August to October 2020, my goal was to interview 50 people (ended up being 51) from geographically, economically, and demographically diverse backgrounds.

I started off by seeking introductions via my personal networks to anyone who would be interested in talking about the concept of purpose. After each interview, I would then ask for introductions to other people I didn't know. I kept track of each interviewee's backgrounds and professions so that I could ensure my criteria of sourcing a diversity of views was met.

Once a quota from a particular sector or background was met, I then deliberately reached out to people in other industry sectors in my network; people who I knew would either have very little familiarity with the 'purpose-driven' space, came from industries that are typically not associated with 'purpose' (i.e. engineering or primary resources), or who I suspected may be a bit more 'skeptical' towards concepts linked to social impact or purpose.

I took a similar approach when it came to professional backgrounds, such as students, employees, managers, executive C-Suite, business owners, retirees. Towards the end of my research period, I did a public call out via LinkedIn for my last 10 interviewees.

I deliberately offered anonymity to all interviewees as I wanted to encourage forthright conversations, and to encourage the voicing of any views that might otherwise be considered contrary to established norms, and to create a free and safe space to articulate opinions.

The questions

I asked everyone the same set of 8 core questions, though not always in the same order:

  1. If I came up to you and said: “Hi, my name’s Scott, and I run a 'For-purpose / Purpose driven' organisation,” what does that mean to you? What would be your definition of that?
  2. What do you think is the role of 'purpose-driven organisations' in the future?
  3. What do you think is preventing us from achieving that future? What do you think might be missing now (if anything)?
  4. What do you think existing businesses need to do, if they want to become more purpose-driven?
  5. What do you think new businesses need to do?
  6. What do you think individuals need to do?
  7. What do you think would be useful for people? Is it more resources? Education? Awareness? Or something else?
  8. Hypothetical thought experiment: Let's say there's a person who is an incredible cyber-security expert but who is highly passionate about eliminating animal cruelty. Their approach is to sell high tech cyber-security solutions, but direct the majority of profits to animal cruelty causes. Is this a 'Purpose-driven business'? *

*The subject of Chapter 5: Worthy vs Unworthy Purpose

Limitations

The research-astute among you may point out that some of the questions may be leading; that it assumes businesses or people want to move towards a future in which there are more 'Purpose-driven' businesses. I acknowledge this, and made sure to flag this potential bias up front in my interviews. I encouraged interviewees to express any disagreements during our conversations, hence preservation of anonymity.

Interview responses were documented by me during the interview (yes, I’m a very fast typer, thanks for asking) however I acknowledge that this is ultimately qualitative research on a relatively small sample size. Whilst I do reference some data in my research, my primary objective was to ‘go deep’ to draw out nuances and subtleties; thick data, if you will.

What do I hope to achieve with this research?

Throughout all of my interviews, I experienced a truly diverse range of perspectives. There were people who strongly believed that 'purpose-driven businesses' are the future, and others who were more skeptical, even cynical.

For me, all of these views are valid. For us to be truly inclusive as a community, we need to embrace everyone's perspectives. We have one planet, meaning we have to get along with each other somehow and work in collaboration; businesses and consumers, communities and individuals.

In sharing my research, I hope to bring texture, nuance, and clarity to the conversation. I want to shine a spotlight on this area, so that as we build forward into a post-Covid future, we do so with an expanded view of what it means to move towards a more 'purpose-driven' future.

But above all, I hope you find this useful.