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Ideas on Purpose
September 17, 2015

Purpose is the Ticket to Social Impact


Photo credit: Hilary Duffy

In recent years, there has been a swell of new conversation and activity surrounding the age-old concept of purpose. Institutions across a broad range of sectors are investing resources into helping their constituencies find it. From changing corporate recruitment strategies to creating new ways to support college students, institutional transformation is being driven by a desire to support and capture the benefits of a force that has been just under all of our noses all along.

At Echoing Green, we believe this newfound interest in attaining and helping others attain an individual sense of purpose can be leveraged to drive social impact. If the trend continues and more institutions embed programs and policies into their work that consciously cultivate purpose, we will see more values-directed employees, volunteers, artists and others driven to make a difference day after day.

Yet in order for purpose to move from trendy to transformational over the long term, the work must be grounded and supported by strong research, evaluation, funding, and opportunities for practitioners to convene, exchange ideas, develop a clear set of values and even a shared mission. These are the qualities afforded by a field.

More to Explore

Why Purpose Matters: It May Be the Ticket to Social Impact – A white paper exploring the purpose field and further investments needed

Is a New Purpose Field Afoot? – Key lessons from the Purpose360 convening

In the 30 years that Echoing Green has worked to shape the field of social entrepreneurship, we have learned firsthand the difference that the support of a field can make. Working as part of a diverse and interconnected network of individuals and institutions boosts all of our efforts. For this reason, we are committed to exploring the development of a new purpose field, one that is already burgeoning, but that needs further support if its critical place in the ecosystem of change-making is to be secured.

In mapping the field of purpose as it exists today, we found that the way in which people define purpose varies. Some focus exclusively on personal meaningfulness—the individual feeling that what one does matters to them personally. Others focus on the intention to accomplish something both meaningful for the self and consequential to the world beyond the self. At Echoing Green, we define purpose as that which moves people to take responsibility for changing the world. We call this pro-social purpose.

We found examples of this kind of pro-social purpose engagement embedded into institutions across the country. However, in this paper we will highlight exemplars from just three: nonprofit, corporate, and higher education. We use these examples to illustrate how pro-social purpose engagement shows up across sectors, and what gaps exist for further investment. As a foundation to strengthening the burgeoning field, we suggest increased pro-social research; evidence-based interventions; interdisciplinary convenings; and a purpose funding category.

Read more about purpose and other topics on our publications page.