How to bring purpose to life – 11 things we learned from our 2019 Forum

At Three Hands, we are inspired by the idea that companies have a purpose beyond profit and have spent the last 15 years helping them to create business value and social value hand in hand. Today, everyone is talking about purpose, but has it led to the changes in businesses that society needs?


For our Forum in November, we invited a fantastic group of speakers to historic Toynbee Hall in East London to share different experiences of bringing purpose to life in their organisations. They ranged from pioneering charity leaders to heads of sustainability and social impact; from leadership development experts to specialists in corporate social innovation.

Here are 11 things we learned from them and the conversations that followed about how to bring purpose to life….

1. Challenge “purpose wash” where you see it

In many businesses there is a purpose – action gap, where what leaders are saying their purpose is bears little relation to what they are actually doing. In some cases, purpose has become a brand or marketing exercise, a way to sell more stuff rather than change the organisation. One of many recent examples is an online fast-fashion company running a “dress well and do your bit for the planet” campaign, whilst continuing to sell £4 dresses at whatever the social and environmental cost. It is crucial to call out such “purpose wash” where you see it.

2. Avoid your purpose statement becoming an end in itself

The pursuit of the perfect purpose statement can feel endless and exhausting – after months or years of consultation, the result is often something that is vague and corporate. Instead, a great purpose should inspire action, making clear why the organisation exists and what change it is trying to make in the world. Great examples include Nationwide Building Society’s focus on “giving everyone a place fit to call home” and Danone’s aim of “bringing health through food to as many people as possible”. The finessing of purpose into a catchy sentence or two should – if done at all – come at the end not at the beginning of the journey.

3. Ask yourself the tough questions

“A brave organisation”, said one attendee, “constantly asks itself the question of what would be different if it did not exist.” This is a powerful question whether you are sitting in the boardroom, developing a new product, or designing a new social impact programme. Questions like these get to the heart of the issue of purpose and the impact you are having in society – if they don’t make you feel a little uncomfortable then you are probably not being entirely honest with your answers.

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4. Think holistically about purpose and people

Purpose is powerful not just for an organisation but also for its people. Therefore, for purpose to thrive, the focus needs to be on creating “healthy human systems” across the whole organisation. As one Forum attendee put it when talking about leadership development, “it’s not about putting clean fish back in a dirty pond”. For purpose to be authentic, those working in an organisation need to see it reflected in the systems, processes and culture they experience every day.

5. There’s no substitute for first-hand experience

If a business is going to have a positive impact on the social and environmental issues that matter to its customers and broader society, it is crucial that the people working for it really understand them. That means engaging with societal issues first-hand – including through community, leadership and customer insight programmes – to gain knowledge on the issues that matter most to the business. All the PowerPoint presentations in the world are no substitute for spending time with those with lived experience of the issues you want to understand.

6. Purposeful products still need to be brilliant

No matter how purposeful and/or sustainable a product or service is, if it is not good enough in itself then those efforts will be in vain. First and foremost it must continue to meet customers’ needs effectively and not cost a huge amount more. However, if you get it right there are benefits to be gained from satisfying customers’ increasing demands for socially and environmentally sound products and services.

7. Do not underestimate the “power of one”

“But what if I am one of thousands of people in a big corporate organisation?” you might be thinking. Individual “intrapreneurs” can bring about huge changes. It doesn’t have to be glamorous; sometimes simply challenging a company policy that is at odds with the organisation’s purpose can unlock whole areas of social / environmental impact. We heard how one person in a large bank fought to change the recycling policy, saving thousands of tonnes of furniture from ending up in landfill. And another, whose profound experience as a skilled volunteer led to him to change the volunteering approach of a whole organisation.

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8. Small decisions matter

When it comes to making your organisation’s purpose a reality, then you should sweat the small stuff. Day-to-day decisions – as well as those at board-level – need to be aligned to your purpose, or slowly the focus and energy will ebb away. For example, if you are committed to sourcing from ethical and/or local suppliers, then spending a little more to do so rather than opting for an online alternative, even when budgets are tight, is a case of staying true to your purpose. If climate change is of particular concern, then it might be time to opt for a video conference rather than a 2-day business class trip to Hong Kong.

9. Bringing purpose to life requires new leadership skills

21st-century leadership is all about being a connected leader, having a clear sense of purpose and addressing societal issues – however, as one speaker put it, “these are not the skills needed to become a CEO”. Equally, if those who are expert at delivering community programmes want to transition into responsible business roles, they too will need to embrace new skills, mindsets, stakeholder relationships and language. With businesses increasingly looking to deliver social impact through their core business rather than discrete programmes, it will be crucial to provide all those who will be leading the charge with the support and training they will require to make a success of it.

10. Expect a hard journey

“Change is slow because it is hard and not because we don’t want to do it,” said one speaker who spends his days working with CEOs who are trying to bring purpose to life. “A number of big companies are on the journey.” While it is important to hold leaders to account, we must also acknowledge that there is no quick fix for transforming an organisation. Purpose is not something that is ever done or finished – it is a north star to guide a business that should always remain aspirational rather than achieved.

11. Be the keeper of the flame

Key to success on this challenging purpose journey is keeping the flame burning. Be crystal clear on the impact that you and your organisation are trying to have in the world and make that purpose real through sharing stories of the change you are making. This is not exclusively a role for senior leaders, though they have a major part to play. Everyone in an organisation can play a role in bringing purpose to life.

For more information on our Forum, a report with the highlights is available here.

If you would like to continue the conversation about how to bring purpose to life in your own organisation, we’d love to hear from you at

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