Why It Doesn’t Take A Nonprofit Career To Make A Difference At Work

At most organizations, purpose starts and stops with a mission and values statement.

Why It Doesn’t Take A Nonprofit Career To Make A Difference At Work
[Photo: Flickr user 5chw4r7z]

For those of us who aren’t doctors or busy building apps that change how people live, it often feels like we can only leave our mark through charity or volunteering. The work we do on a daily basis might not seem to do much “good” or have a real purpose beyond the company’s own financial goals.


But any successful business needs to satisfy some sort of need; that’s supply-and-demand 101. From insurance representatives to baristas, employees across the private sector have millions of people depending on them. So why do so few of these folks who keep the world running report feeling the impact of their work?

Seeing Things Through

For one thing, most companies don’t emphasize it. Our own recent survey of thousands of American workers showed that only 26% of those at for-profit companies felt strongly motivated by the purpose of their work. At most organizations, purpose starts and stops with a mission and values statement.

A colleague of ours recently had a helpful chat with a customer service representative at her cable company, but when she requested his number to follow up in case of any issues, he said it was against company policy to offer it. That didn’t just leave the customer stranded, but it also meant the customer service representative would never see the completion of his work.

Imagine starting but never finishing a movie, or cooking and never sampling the dish. Besides the utter frustration that would cause, how would you ever hone your cinematic taste or culinary skills? In these contexts, the shortcomings of such an approach are clear, yet most jobs don’t let employees see the impact of their work.


Selling Purpose Short

Purpose is more than a stated mission—people must understand and see how their own work matters within that larger context. This fact is no more evident than in the nonprofit sector, where you’d expect employees to feel a near unanimous sense of purpose, but our survey found that a modest 53% were strongly motivated by the purpose of their work.

Seeing why your work matters isn’t just about feeling good. Purpose results in higher performance—regardless of role and industry. In one study, Wharton professor and behavior expert Adam Grant showed that when call center operators had good managers and were allowed direct contact with the beneficiaries of their work, their sales increased by 28% per shift compared to the control group.

It should be no surprise then that the highest performing companies are also those where employees can see the impact of what they do. The Ritz-Carlton gives each employee—from housekeepers to bartenders—an allowance to spend on guest needs at their discretion. A flight attendant at Southwest got a military family through security so that they could have a bit more time together before the dad embarked on his deployment. Purpose runs so deep at the company that an employee we spoke with characterized the low-cost carrier as “a customer service company that happens to be an airline.”

While purpose is only one aspect of a six-part performance framework–which also includes play, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia–our research shows that it’s an important and positive one. What’s more, purpose is a more effective motivator when it permeates the entirety of an organization, not just individuals’ contributions.


Consider one study by researchers at Northwestern University who wanted to test whether actions do in fact speak louder than words when it comes to influencing behavior. They offered elementary-school students gift certificates after a bowling game. While both groups were encouraged to give their winnings to charity, the researchers found that 64% of the students who heard an assistant preach charity and saw him giving away his winnings followed suit themselves. This compared to 47% of those who heard the assistant promote charity but then saw him hold onto what he’d won. An organization’s conduct needs to be consistent with its mission and values in order for the latter to mean anything.

Instilling Impact In The For-Profit World

So how do we emphasize impact in industries that aren’t inherently life-saving or life-changing? Basically, companies have to talk the talk, walk the walk, and make sure every employee, regardless of tenure, is able to do the same.

Here are three questions your company can ask in order to find out immediately where the gaps might be and how to start filling them:

1. What is the purpose of our work? Pick five employees at random and ask them to tell what your organization’s purpose is and how their work helps achieve it. If their responses are vague or inconsistent, your organization probably needs to better define and communicate its mission and values.


2. How does my work affect others—end users, colleagues, and the company at large? Ask yourself and your team how often in the course of a week you see the effects of your work on your customers or teammates. If it’s infrequent, you might need to redesign certain roles in order to make that impact more widely felt. Toyota, for instance, lets assembly-line workers rotate positions to see how an entire car is built, which helps everyone improve their own work and better assist their colleagues.

3. Where’s the evidence of our collective impact? Is there a location or event (physical or virtual) where proof of your team’s work on behalf of the company’s mission is celebrated? It’s important to share evidence of the impact your company makes day by day across the organization. That doesn’t just help create a company-wide sense of purpose, it also creates learning opportunities–what’s working, what isn’t, and why.

Impact doesn’t have to involve saving a life, and it shouldn’t be a meaningless buzzword. It’s simpler than that: Your work has impact whenever it helps others in a way you believe is important.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi are co-authors of Primed to Perform, which explores the counterintuitive science behind high-performing cultures. They are also cofounders of Vega Factor, a company building technology to help organizations of all sizes and across sectors create high-performing cultures.