Being “for purpose” doesn’t make you special

Being “for purpose” doesn’t make you special

I was speaking recently at the Better Boards Conference for not-for-profits and the Q&A raised the issue that there is no such thing as an organisation that cannot be for profit of some kind.

If you’re not growing by 3%+ a year you’re going backwards and are probably not sustainable. So we need to find a different way of describing the difference.

A person in the audience said instead “they were for purpose”. And here’s where I get queasy. You see, I’ve recently become increasingly concerned about the use of the term “for purpose”. Its use was rife again the other night at the launch of B Corporations here in Australia.

There is something bordering on conceit and definitely in the neighborhood of judgement when people use the term. The unsaid that accompanies it is we’re better than you. We’re for purpose. We’re not just about making money.

But here’s the rub. Most organisations are for purpose. You just might not like what that purpose is…

Being for a purpose means you circle your wagons around it. Use it as a guide for what you do. It’s your why. Sounds good so far. Except purpose in and of itself can be any number of different things – good or bad.

Bank robbers have a purpose. So do people who volunteer to help the homeless. Enron had a purpose. Lehman Brothers had a purpose. Walmart has a purpose. Patagonia has a purpose. The Red Cross has a purpose.

Much as Shakespeare said in Hamlet “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”.

The having or being for a purpose is just the starting point. The real questions are what are you doing with it? How are you acting? What are you trading to get it? How do you treat others along the way?

These are the things that paint a picture of what kind of organisation you are or will be. What kind of brand you have. What kind of impact you make and legacy you leave.

Being for purpose is just the starting point. It doesn’t make you better or worse. It isn’t a replacement for being or not being for profit. It doesn’t differentiate you. It doesn’t make you special. It’s what your purpose is and what you do with it that does that.

So use that as your calling card. Let showing people what you care about be the way they know what kind of organisation you are.

See you next week with “The brand building reading list”.

Michel is an independent brand analyst dedicated to helping organisations make promises they can keep and keep the promises they make – with a strong, resilient organisation as the result. She also publishes a blog at You can follow Michel on Twitter @michelhogan.



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