The 4 Ps of Purpose-Driven Work: Part 1 (Product)

by Richenda Vermeulen
October 8, 2021

A well-defined purpose is key to having a product (or service) customers will care about. A clear purpose can help you attract and retain the best people. It should inform your marketing and how you take up space in the world and what you do to make that space better, not worse.

At ntegrity, we've put purpose at the heart of our organisation for 9 years now, a desire that grew out of my career as a social worker and my background in the not-for-profit sector. However, this hasn't always been clear or easy. As more of us are attempting to put purpose at the centre, I'm keen to share lessons and insights you can ask yourself, your organisation or your boss to help you get started on your purpose journey.

1. Purpose qualifier - does your product harm people?

For some it might be obvious where the line is. For others, not so much. Asking this question helped us decide where we drew the line as an agency: no doing work for clients that promote gambling, tobacco or products we think have a significant adverse effect on people around us.

Sometimes it’s easy to make that call. Once we received a brief from a plastic surgeon who wanted to target women in their 30s to 50s and exploit their insecurities to market a ‘quick fix touch up’ as the answer. In other cases, it’s more challenging to discern, like when we got a brief from a political party that seemed to promote values that were ‘good for people.’ But upon digging further, it was clear to us that certain groups would be marginalised by their policies.

Whether the answer is immediately clear or not, you should always start with asking the question, does what we do hurt someone?

  • Who is involved in your supply chain?

  • Is anyone used, objectified, or treated unfairly in the process?

  • Does your product cause addiction, pollute relationships or feed on insecurity?

  • Does it hurt the earth?

These questions can be uncomfortable to ask, and they can be very difficult to answer in global organisations with vast supply chains. But difficult questions are worth asking – we are always learning! Only recently our client Greenfleet remind us that we can seek sustainability terms in our supplier contracts, something we are now working on operationalising.

2. Does your product solve problems, does it create good?

Not causing harm is the lowest possible bar. By all means, clear it. Up one step from there is asking, does our product actively solve someone’s problem? Or even, does it create good? Knowing the answer is vital – this is what can attract staff and customers.

We’re often asked how we maintain our rapid growth in an industry where so many agencies go bust in their first five years. The answer lies in meeting a need: we’re devoted to helping the not-for-profit sector, so each move we make as a business, whether that's hiring or company strategy, is based on a foundation of thinking about the customer.

Instead of asking, ‘What do we have to do to grow?’ it means asking, ‘What does the not-for-profit sector need and how do we help them grow?’

The nuance is slight, however, over the last 9 years, this question has been the key driving factor in our hiring and promoting key leaders and making important investment decisions.

It’s a question we don’t just ask in our quarterly strategy days. It’s a question we put front and centre of every conversation we have as a leadership team. We also have a dedicated Slack channel where every person on our team shares insights, success factors and relevant questions.

We live and breathe knowing what it takes to help the not-for-profit sector grow.– and because of this, we grow. Not the other way around.

For us, this translates into a clear purpose: helping NFPs raise money to grow their mission – and secondarily, using our influence to challenge common misconceptions about the NFP sector in order to diminish cynicism and increase trust.

If you're wondering how this purpose-centred approach can apply to you or your brand, simply ask yourself: does your brand meet a real need for people? Is your growth focused on the growth of others and their benefit? If your answer to both is yes, your success is tied to your customers rather than meeting your own needs alone.

3. Does profit from your products drive purpose?

The rise of social enterprises has shown us how profits can be a force for good. However, becoming a social enterprise is not an option for every organisation, especially where profit needs to be reinvested to fuel more growth. This can be atricky balancing act even for many social enterprises in early growth stages.

Not being a social enterprise shouldn't limit your opportunity to use your profits to drive purpose. Here are some suggestions:

  • You can donate to charities and causes you or your staff care about. It doesn't have to be an ‘all or nothing’ or a specific percentage. At ntegrity, every year we distribute profit to causes we care about, but this has scaled depending on what we need for re-investment that year (see #2). For us, it's about balancing donations with the capital decisions we need to make – whether that’s hiring staff, investing in tools, or launching new service lines. Donations can take the form of employee matching, giving publicly or privately to causes important to you and your team. We gave when we were tiny, and we’ll continue to give when we are huge. Generosity is not the exclusive domain of large corporate philanthropists. We can all play a role.

  • You can offer profit sharing to employees. Being able to grow alongside your organisation can drive a great deal of purpose for many employees. You can do this in a number of ways. Growing remuneration is one, but long-term incentives are becoming more popular to align staff to long-term outcomes of an organisation's growth.

  • You can invest in better benefits to keep employees healthy and thriving. As a team of 25 staff, HR advisors have commented on thevast benefits we provide, including mental health and training subsidies. The former CEO of Costco Jim Sinegal, who famously earned a third of what his peers made while offering generous benefits to his employees, once said, “This is not altruistic. This is good business.”

  • You can make sure you’re paying adequate taxes on your profits. (Yep, let’s go there.) As a business owner, the general advice financial consul will give you is to maximise profit through minimising tax, including by exploiting tax loopholes. However, we work every day with inspiring organisations reliant on government funding – people making change with our taxes! As an agency, we’re proud to pay our share. Our accountant is used to a call from me asking, ‘Are we paying enough?’ (It generally makes him chuckle.)

After reading these questions, you might feel proud of your organisation’s product. Or you might feel a little uncomfortable. But there is good news. We’re all on this journey together, discovering how we can create products with purpose, products that do no harm and products that add some good to the world.

Wherever you are on this journey, embrace this moment as an opportunity to invest in purpose. Welcome whatever questions it raises for you.

And if you’re wondering what your next step is, feeling a pull to something more, let us know. Maybe there’s a reason, and maybe there’s a solution.