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.
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)_/¯
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.
I asked everyone the same set of 8 core questions, though not always in the same order:
*The subject of Chapter 5: Worthy vs Unworthy Purpose
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.
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.