Purpose: The fundamental ingredient of all successful communities

This is a guest post from Douglas Atkin, CEO at The Glue Project and author of “The Culting of Brands.”

What’s your purpose?

At the heart of every successful organization is a clear purpose. It’s the thing that the founder starts with. It’s what successful organizations use for big and small decisions alike, often for decades afterwards.

Religion or corporation, online support network or cupcake enthusiast group, all communities do better when they — their leaders, their members, their potential recruits, and the world at large — are very clear about:

  • What the organization is here to do
  • The beliefs and values it executes against
  • And therefore, what is expected of its membership.

Without one, the community is rudderless. It may potter along, but it won’t be truly great.

I like this quote from a famous business book. Even in the world of commerce a purpose, ideology, mission/vision — call it what you will — is considered vital to an organization’s success:

“Like the fundamental ideal of a great nation, church, school, or any other enduring institution, core ideology in a visionary company is a set of basic precepts that plant a fixed stake in the ground: ‘This is who we are; this is what we stand for; this is what we’re all about.’ …core ideology is so fundamental to the institution that it changes seldom, if ever.” (Jim Collins & Jerry Porras, Built To Last)

So who consumes a purpose? Why do they need or want it? And therefore, what goes into one? And when you have one, what do you do with it? And…what does one look like?

They can take many forms; some of them are very familiar. It may be a book: the Bible, the Koran or The Little Red Book. Or a speech: MLK’s “I have a Dream.” Or a Declaration of Independence. Or Constitution.

All of these have a vision of the how the world should be. They’re crystal clear about the values of the community, and are explicit about expected behavior. They’re used as a lodestone for making decisions that affect the fortunes of the community. They’re a statement of why you should join, commit, and take action.

Most importantly, they define the community to itself and to others, whether it’s a nation, a religion, a movement, or a political party.

Of course most purposes or ideologies are not famous, not as poetic, or define things like countries. They can often be found on About pages or coffee mugs. They’re often statements about the group’s goals, what they stand for, and who should join. But if they’re good, and they’re used, then they’ll do the exact same things that the intimidating famous ones do.

Let’s talk first about the consumers of a purpose, and why they need or want one. That’ll help define what goes into one, and what you do with it.

By the way, I’m using the term ‘purpose’ as a catch-all for ideology, belief system, mission, and so on. Each of these may have slight differences, but really they serve similar enough needs and are used in similar enough ways.

The Consumers of a Purpose.

There are at least four:

  1. The membership.
    Arguably these are the most important consumers of an ideology.

    If it’s well conceived, the benefit is commitment. And with commitment comes the associated benefits of conviction, energy, involvement, motivation to recruit others, and willingness to take action.

  2. The leadership.
    The key benefit for the leadership is clarity. Making fast and effective decisions obviously improves the efficiency of the organization, especially large and complex ones.

    There’s a drag on decision-making when it has to be prefaced by yet another debate about the organization’s role and values. When they’re universally known and embraced, then decisions about strategy, next steps, who belongs, and who doesn’t happen fast and with buy-in.

  3. Potential members
    Potential recruits need to know why they’re joining and what’s expected of them if they do. They need to be able to say things like, “Those values are mine. I’ll feel at home there,” and “I love what this community is out to create. I want to join.”

    If a prospect knows what they are getting into and is clear whether they identify with the community, or not, then they’ll join and stay. And you’ll spend less time dealing with the members who really shouldn’t be there — the ones who can make the community and themselves less happy and effective.

  4. The world at large.
    If the community begins to have an impact, it means it’s rubbing up against the world at large. Beyond recruits, those outside of the community need to understand what you’re about. They could be potential partners or sponsors, they might be the media, or even government agencies.

    The benefits are dependent on who’s engaging with your group, but they can include clarity about compatibility, whether commercially, politically, or in terms of goals if it’s an organization with whom you’re entering into an alliance. Or ease of communication if it’s media who need sound-bite definitions.

Can you think of other consumers of your organization’s purpose? How does your organization use one?

About Douglas Atkin

Douglas believes that community is the engine of loyalty -- to companies, brands, religions, causes, sports teams, whatever -- and that social glue is generally a good thing. He works with organizations to create to create stronger glue through better community platforms and programs. He does this through his venture: The Glue Project.

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