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Why social purpose matters

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If there is one thing you can say to sum up us humans, it’s that purpose matters.

In a nutshell

  1. The depth to which we feel a sense of purpose impacts every aspect of our lives. When we have purpose we are healthier, we are happier and we suffer less depression.
  2. Purpose is also very important in how we judge the organisations and brands that fill our lives. Millennial customers are much less likely to churn from an organisation where they have a strong connection to its purpose. 
  3. Organisations have the scale to achieve meaningful change that individuals cannot. But they often struggle to define and articulate their purpose.  
  4. A big part of our mission at TRA is helping organisations align the articulation and activation of their purpose with what really matters to the people that they exist to help.

Indeed, almost every action we take in life can be wrapped up into either the search for meaning (religion, politics, having kids, drugs), or an attempt to quell the lack of meaning we feel (religion, politics, having kids, different drugs). We all dedicate our lives, consciously or not, to a muddy, roundabout, ongoing search for purpose.

And with good reason. Science tells us that the depth to which we feel a sense of purpose impacts every aspect of our lives. When we have purpose we are healthier, we are happier and we suffer less depression. We even live longer than those with a low sense of purpose. As Margaret Atwood nicely put it, “What I am living for and what I am dying for are the same question”.

Given purpose is so important to our individual lives, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to know that it is also very important in how we judge the organisations and brands that fill our lives – the act of choosing what we use and what we buy can play a part in helping us find our sense of purpose. Put simply, how brands define their purpose, and how we see them live it, matters to us.

A recent PwC study showed that millennial customers are 5.3 times less likely to churn from an organisation where they had a strong connection to its purpose. Recent work by the Harvard Business Review also found that employees who derive meaning from their work report almost twice the job satisfaction and are three times more likely to stay with their organisation to fuel business success.

The social purpose of organisations is also critical because of the issue of scale. One data source we work with a lot at TRA is the New Zealand Attitude and Values Study – a 20-year longitudinal look at social attitudes, personality and health outcomes of more than 60,000 New Zealanders. What the data clearly shows is that we are increasingly worried as a society about where things are heading in terms of both the environment and equality.

But what it also shows is that the scale of the problems we face are so large that, as individuals, there is no way we can achieve meaningful change. This is why social purpose at an organisational level matters so much. People want to see change happen, but simply don’t think they can help enough. It is only when the scale of organisational resources comes together with individual passion that desired outcomes can be achieved.

"In much the same way we humans can struggle to find and articulate our own sense of purpose, so too can organisations struggle to articulate their own compelling narrative as to why they exist."

So purpose matters. It matters to us as humans in how we live our lives, and it matters to organisations because the importance to our lives means it impacts their ability to succeed greatly. But in much the same way we humans can struggle to find and articulate our own sense of purpose (see: religion, politics, drugs, having kids), so too can organisations struggle to articulate their own compelling narrative as to why they exist. Even when the DNA points towards a clear area where social purpose can be activated, finding a way to bring this to life that genuinely connects with people and works as an overarching narrative isn’t easy.

Indeed, because us humans are so poor at understanding what really matters to ourselves as individuals, determining what we will connect with from the organisations that serve us is a space of tricky endeavour. It is this space, however, where we see a core role for the insights industry in creating a meaningful impact on the world.

Our mission at TRA is to help organisations live the customer-centric doctrine, to see people get more of what matters from those organisations which serve them. And a big part of achieving this has to be helping organisations align the articulation and activation of their purpose with what really matters to the people that they exist to help.

"Insight into what it means to be human has the power to drive great social good. Even if all it does is inform the direction to which business and government points its energies, we can harness human insight to create change."

It’s a challenging space to operate in, because humans aren’t easy to understand. We are bad narrators of our own experience, we don’t often know why we do what we do, because so many of our actions emerge from our subconscious, influenced by all the signals we are receiving from the world around us. But it is important. Insight into what it means to be human has the power to drive great social good. Even if all it does is inform the direction to which business and government points its energies, we can harness human insight to create change.

We see what we do at TRA as critical to this process. We see it as our obligation to create shared success through the power of alignment.

Andrew Lewis
Managing Director at TRA

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