It is a question that sounds simple but is quite tricky to answer. And the answers vary, depending on who you’re asking. Would your Chair write the same words as you? How about your management team or your service users?
When we put this question to the senior teams and boards of 35 charities, both large and small, the average alignment on ‘purpose’ was only 44 per cent.
Reaching alignment on your core purpose is essential
Having clarity on purpose will ensure that your valuable resources are used in the most focused way, and makes it easier to understand whether you are successfully making a difference or not.
Misalignment could mean that each person in your organisation has a different view of what success looks like and is, therefore, pulling in a different direction. As a result, the fundraising, communications, and marketing teams don’t have a clear, unified message. This means that when it comes to measuring impact, they’re trying to measure hundreds of different things to accommodate everyone’s view of what success looks like. It can get complicated and time-consuming.
Last year we undertook an impact review at Teenage Cancer Trust and what we found was that the organisation was actually very aligned around purpose, but that its purpose was very broad. Kate Collins, chief executive of Teenage Cancer Trust, said: “The impact review showed us that having a broad purpose meant we could’ve taken a number of different strategic directions. The pandemic hit while we were undergoing the review and it showed us more than ever that in order to operate in a world of scarce resource, you need to have a laser focus on what it is you’re trying to achieve and the impact you want to make.”
Purpose shouldn’t be complicated
Ahead of the culmination of its 50th anniversary, medical research charity Animal Free Research UK wanted to not only tell the story of its impact, but to own that story too. Like many organisations, the story of its impact was quite complicated, so we worked with the charity via our Impact Review to simplify it.
Carla Owen, chief executive of Animal Free Research UK, said: “Matt and his team worked with us to help clarify and distil our purpose, which has been really helpful. Before undergoing the process, we had our vision, mission and our values, and our purpose ran through all of that, but we didn’t have a purpose statement. Our alignment on purpose was average, so it’s been useful to have these conversations and get everyone on the same page.”
How to be more aligned around purpose
Before tackling how aligned you are around purpose, you need to make sure everyone is on the same page and in agreement about what you are trying to do as an organisation. During the pandemic we couldn’t meet clients face-to-face, so we developed an online tool to help test purpose alignment. Because we believe that alignment on purpose is so important for the future of the charity sector, we have made this tool free for any charity to use.
After collecting your purpose statements, the tool uses AI algorithms and natural language processing to compare the results and give you a score. You’ll also get lots of useful ideas, including listing your statements in order of how aligned they are with both your official purpose statement and among yourselves.
Ideally you are looking for a purpose statement that is eight words or fewer, making it easy for everyone to remember and get behind. The word cloud and wordcount list on the tool can give you a hint toward keywords you might use.
Teenage Cancer Trust is now sense-checking its purpose statement with its youth advisory group and frontline NHS staff. “Feedback from the young people we support is the most critical as our purpose will anchor our new organisational strategy,” said Collins.
Once you’ve settled on your agreed purpose statement, you can then use that to focus the organisation’s resources on achieving that purpose.
For Animal Free Research UK, having its agreed purpose statement has allowed it to go back and look at its strategy and theory of change and ensure that its purpose is underpinning everything it does. Most importantly, it’s helped it refine what it wants to achieve over the next 50 years.
There has never been a better time to stop and think about your purpose and to test how aligned you are. In a post-Covid-19 world, we are all going to have to think very carefully about how we use even more limited resources to meet increasing demand. Alignment on your core purpose has to be the best starting point. Will your team beat 44 per cent?
Matt Stevenson-Dodd is the Managing Director of Trust Impact, one of the sponsors of the Third Sector Awards