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What is a Purposeful Business?


I recently posted the following question to Facebook:

What’s another word or phrase that captures the essence of organizations that are collaborative and/or mission-driven? What is the buzzword for these types of or organizations?

“Nonprofit” isn’t it, “mission-driven” might be too vague (though it’s the closest to what I’m going for). Collaborative is spot-on for certain projects, but not all mission-driven businesses or orgs are collaborative. Thoughts?

In asking my extended community for input, I was hoping to break out of my own thought-patterns and challenges about naming the kind of work I do, and who I work with.

The trouble is, we don’t have the language to perfectly describe businesses that care about the global big picture, businesses that are working for good, businesses that are focused on more than the bottom line.

We have nonprofits, and B Corporations, and social enterprises, and worker cooperatives, and community projects, and social startups, and so on. But what’s the connecting thread between them all?

What’s a word or phrase that accurately describes all of these different models? Or at least provides a clear, shared understanding of what we’re talking about.

I’ve been struggling with how to talk about the types of businesses and organizations I work with and what the tagline for The Freelance Cat should be—how to succinctly describe who it is I serve with my writing and content strategy.

The Facebook crowdsourcing exercise proved to be quite a conversation starter. Some of the suggestions I received were:

  • visionary
  • socially responsible
  • synergetic
  • social ventures
  • social good
  • social enterprise
  • not-just-for-profit
  • return on impact
  • triple bottom line
  • human-centered
  • mission-driven
  • purpose-oriented
  • for-purpose
  • mission-oriented
  • value-aligned
  • people-centric
  • purposeful
  • community-driven
  • community-oriented
  • mission-minded

Tony Bacigalupo from New Work Cities shared this:

Just a business. Because this is what business was supposed to be in the first place. But then it all got mucked up because financial profit is a terrible measure of true prosperity and success. But anyway we’re just trying to build a business that’s profitable in the more evolved sense of the word.”

My first inclination was to go with “mission-driven” because it implies that there’s an underlying mission to the business, aside from just making money.

But, as has been pointed out to me several times, a company’s mission could be to get more guns into the world, or create more pesticides—not things that resonate with me or define the companies I work with. At all.

As Alex Hillman from Indy Hall pointed out in the thread, “Even the worst businesses in the world are on a mission, to maximize profits for their shareholders.”

After mulling it over for a few weeks, I settled on “purposeful.”

For me, purposeful captures, more closely than anything else I’ve heard, the idea that businesses can serve the greater good—that businesses can operate with something larger than profit driving them.

Maybe that means helping young writers get started, or cleaning up ocean plastic, or creating a food redistribution app, or sharing your mom’s recipes, or bringing a community together to work in the same space, or drawing attention to local artists in innovative ways.

In the end, I realized that it’s not up to me to define what makes a business purposeful. It’s up to you to claim “purposeful” for yourself and your business. If you operate with purpose, it follows that you are a purposeful business.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this ongoing conversation. How do you define purposeful? Does that description resonate with you and your business or project? Is there a phrase you prefer? In the comments, let me know.

If you’d like to learn more about creating content for your purposeful business, sign up for The Freelance Cat newsletter, a weekly resource full of tips and tools to help you tell your stories.

Photo: Léo Parpais (CC-BY)