Some time ago, the philanthropic and business communities embraced an idea that, while it seems perfectly logical today, was radical at the time. “Nonprofit organizations,” they decided, “need to act more like businesses.”
Over the years, nonprofits embraced this idea, and they benefited as a result. A greater focus on operational efficiency, fiscal management, metric tracking and other business practices helped them deliver on their missions more effectively. The result has been a more powerful philanthropic community and more powerful results for their constituents and communities at large.
In light of that history, I find it interesting that, more recently, I’ve noticed another trend: Having accepted that nonprofits should act more like businesses, we now seem to be sensing that the converse might also be true. Businesses, it seems, need to act more like nonprofits.
Before I go on, let me say that I’m not suggesting that businesses should ignore the power of profit. I am saying, however, that I have seen at least one non-profit attribute that businesses need to replicate if they’re going to succeed in the emerging marketplace: a focus on mission.
Some businesses have claimed to make their mission a part of their brand for a long time. By focusing on the good they do with their products and services, they strive to connect emotionally with customers. And, since the common wisdom is that the vast majority of buying decisions are based on emotion, that approach certainly works. That’s why we see companies spending countless dollars on mission-focused ads. They move customers to action.
But mission is becoming a bigger factor in another aspect of the workplace: the workforce. An increasing number of American workers say they want more than salary and benefits from the workplace; they want jobs that give their lives meaning. In fact, a 2018 study by the Harvard Business Review suggests that nine out of 10 U.S. employees would surrender a portion of their income in exchange for greater meaning in their jobs. Another study, by Imperative, found that employees who are engaged by their employer’s mission are 54% more likely to stay at a company for more than five years that those who are motivated by a pay check alone.
In other words, if businesses are going to attract and retain top talent, they need to offer jobs that connect to that meaning. So what can for-profits do to compete for talent in this age of meaning? They can learn some tips from their nonprofit peers:
Adopt a mission statement that explains how your product or service improves the world. You’ll never inspire people by saying your mission is to make the best and most whatevers … unless you explain how succeeding at that goal will benefit the world around us.
Put that mission statement at the heart of all you do. Measure everything you do according to its impact to deliver on that world-improving mission.
Communicate that mission. Your mission won’t make a difference if nobody knows about it.
Celebrate impact. When your team does something that delivers on the mission, celebrate that success by sharing the story of how that impact came to be and the difference your firm made.
Equip your people to share the mission story. Make sure all team members know how to connect their jobs to the mission, and train them to always point back to the mission when they talk about their work. Give them tools and guidance for sharing stories of impact. Help them put themselves in the middle of the mission.
In some ways, nonprofits have it easy when it comes to storytelling. For example, at Damar, we have amazing stories to tell of children and adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities who have progressed well beyond what anyone ever expected. Their stories are powerful and inspiring, and they help us remember our mission every day. In that way, they give our lives meaning. Capture a similar meaning in your business, and you’ll not only connect with customers, but you’ll also engage a generation of employees who are looking for more than a paycheck.
Jenny Peters-Reece is Chief Strategy Officer for Damar Services.