How Do You Create A New Economy Based On Purpose And Meaningful Relationships?

Aaron Hurst is trying to create a new model for how–and why–we work.

How Do You Create A New Economy Based On Purpose And Meaningful Relationships?

Aaron Hurst, founder of the Taproot Foundation, a pro bono services nonprofit, and Imperative, a company aiming to jumpstart what Hurst calls “the Purpose Economy,” gets much of his inspiration from family. Born in Aspen, Colorado, Hurst is the grandson of Joseph Slater, who turned the Aspen Institute from a seminar into global platform. His uncle, Marc Porat, came up with the term “Information Economy” 35 years ago, predicting the rise of today’s Silicon Valley long before it was apparent to most people.


From Slater, Hurst took inspiration for Taproot (“It’s the Aspen Institute model of bringing people together across sectors, but instead of talking, lets do something,” he says). And from Porat, Hurst took the idea of predicting the rise of a new economy–the aforementioned Purpose Economy–and even writing a book on the topic. “He showed how the economy went from agrarian to industrial to information, but that won’t be the last economy,” he says.

Hurst started his career working in the nonprofit sector in Chicago. He loved the work, but saw that local nonprofits were constantly hitting a wall–there were money issues, sure, but they also had a tough time getting talent. “Now, to run an organization, you need so much technical talent,” he observes. After stints working at two-venture funded startups in the Bay Area during the first dot com bubble, Hurst wondered: how could nonprofits ensure that they have the same access to marketing, human resources, and technology as startups?

In 2001, he started Taproot, with the idea of applying a manufacturing model to pro bono work. At the time, many nonprofits weren’t interested in pro bono, he says. “They basically said, ‘Don’t waste my time. I know how pro bono goes. It doesn’t get done.'”

Instead of offering general services (essentially saying, “Here’s a volunteer, do with them what you will”), Hurst wanted to offer nonprofits a set catalogue of services from volunteers with a standardized process. “It was a systematic approach. Here are the five services we offer: a team of five, five hours a week for five months. Five became my lucky number,” he says. Taproot spent $100,00 building out manuals for each type of project–agendas for meetings, examples of deliverables, and so on. By 2007, Taproot scaled up to seven cities, and became the largest nonprofit consulting firm in the world.

But Hurst still wasn’t satisfied. Taproot was only reaching a fraction of the market, so he switched strategies. “We built a market for pro bono, instead of just being a pro bono provider,” he says. In 2008, Hurst and a handful of other activists launched A Billion + Change, a campaign for companies to pledge pro bono work. By June 2013, over 500 companies had pledged nearly $2 billion in pro bono services. And today, Taproot is a full-fledged pro bono marketplace, offering an array of services, including a searchable network of projects and pro bono providers.

Hurst and his wife Kara, the CEO of the Sustainability Consortium, even wrote a pro bono-themed children’s book, called Mommy and Daddy Do It Pro Bono.


But in the face of all this success, Hurst’s attention was shifting. Three years ago, he started working as a consultant for LinkedIn, helping the company to figure out how pro bono could be part of its professional networking experience. As a result of his work, LinkedIn launched a feature this past August for members to select whether or not they’re interested in pro bono or board service. In the first seven months, a million people signed up–far more people than opportunities available. “People who did pro bono work always say its among the best if not the best experience of their career,” says Hurst. “I started to ask the question, ‘Why isn’t the rest of our work that day?'”

People often do pro bono work, he reasoned, to supplement a lack of purpose in their paid careers. Maybe work should be reshaped to take advantage of all that goodwill and yearning for purpose.

After 12 years at Taproot, Hurst decided to make the change, launching a “human-centered career platform” called Imperative this past July. “There are three pieces to what we’re doing, to change work and change the economy,” he says.

The first piece is Hurst’s new book, called The Purpose Economy. The book lays out Hurst’s basic platform–that the economy is shifting so that purpose will become more and more important both for people and organizations. “I look across every industry, and the post-information-economy changes we see are about increasing purpose for people and having deeper, more meaningful relationships,” says Hurst.

The second piece, called Cities of Purpose, is a pilot project in Atlanta to support circles of people who want to maximize purpose in their careers and communities. In the first week after launch, 3,000 people signed up to have dinner with strangers to talk about purpose. The final piece of the project is the Imperative site itself.

Hurst developed a diagnostic tool, available here, to help people identify their purpose profile–a statement of purpose, essentially. “It’s sort of your North Star,” says Hurst. One of the upcoming feature on the site will be co-journaling, where site visitors will be encouraged to take 30 seconds to write about one moment each day that gives them purpose. Visitors will be able to see the moments described by everyone else that shares their same purpose profile.


Hurst says that the audience for both his book and the Imperative project is basically the same: people who are approximately 25 to 40 and have some work experience, but aren’t fresh out of college. They’re still trying to figure out their role in the workplace–how they can have meaningful careers and still make money. The Purpose Economy is obvious to people who are looking for it, he believes. Everyone else will catch up eventually.

Check out our excerpts from The Purpose Economy here and here.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.