As part of its Emergency Response strategy, the Gates Foundation supports organizations working in this Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh.

Putting Purpose into Practice

Organizations make the mistake of assuming that a strong purpose alone yields huge benefits. Turns out, it isn’t quite so simple.

Sean Hewens
Apr 16 · 7 min read

By Casey Hanewall & Sean Hewens

Many non-profits and philanthropic foundations are able to compete for the very best talent not just because of the salaries they pay, but because of the importance of the work they do. For a growing number of employees, believing in the “why” behind what they do at work every day matters more than ever before. Studies show that companies with strong purposes achieve bigger profits and employ happier workers. A shared sense of purpose also tends to galvanize a workforce: difficult decisions are made easier and an organization is able to punch above its weight when a strong purpose is put to practical use.

But, too often, organizations make the mistake of assuming that a strong purpose alone yields these benefits. It turns out it’s not so simple. Organizations must be proactive and rigorous in bringing even the strongest purpose statements to life for their employees.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends more than $6 billion every year on philanthropic programs. Its purpose — All Lives Have Equal Value — drives impactful work all over the globe. But even this purpose-led organization wasn’t immune from the pitfalls that can arise when purpose feels disconnected from the day-to-day realities of the job.

Beginning in 2017, The Gates Foundation set out to envision how they wanted their organization to be as a place to work by 2025. They asked IDEO to partner in this exploration, and over the course of a year, IDEO and the Gates Foundation began designing new ways to bring the 2025 vision to life.

As part of this engagement, the IDEO team employed a survey tool called Creative Difference, which helps organizations quantify different aspects of their innovation potential, including purpose. An organization’s “purpose score” is composed of three sub-qualities: clarity of purpose, passion for the purpose, and usefulness of purpose.

The Creative Difference results revealed that the foundation fell into a category of organizations that score quite high on their top-line purpose score, but much lower when it comes to the usefulness of this purpose. We call this gap the “purpose differential.”

Almost everyone who took the Creative Difference survey at the Gates Foundation strongly agreed with the organization’s global purpose — All Lives Have Equal Value — and that this uniquely powerful sentiment attracted them to the work. But the survey also revealed that most staff didn’t find this purpose to be particularly useful when it came to guiding their individual actions or decision-making around the organization.

We set out to explore this purpose differential phenomenon at the Gates Foundation and paid particular attention to positive outliers revealed by the survey. We wanted to know what these outlier individuals and teams did differently to eliminate this purpose differential. Three important lessons emerged from our work.

Unintentional Competition: The Gates Foundation has many programmatic areas with goals as diverse as polio eradication worldwide and education reform in the United States. Each team’s individual strategy inherently colors the way team members view the organization’s purpose statement.

While the foundation’s purpose tends to resonate at the 30,000-foot-level, it can be interpreted very differently depending on whether an employee is focused on malaria-elimination in Nigeria or college-readiness in Mississippi.

What’s more, overlapping ambitions across teams can lead to competition for resources, strategic partnerships, and global alliances. As a result, while individuals can agree in the abstract that they’re driven by a shared purpose, they nevertheless find that cross-team collaboration can be difficult, as day-to-day frictions and constraints demand attention.

Everything’s A Data Point: Most Gates Foundation employees are physically removed from the organization’s tangible impact out in the world. The vast majority of staff work in the Seattle headquarters, and the organization is by design a funder and convener working at the systemic level, rather than as an implementer. The consequence of this operating structure is that everything becomes a data point — at a distance from the human-centered purpose and impact on the ground.

Moments of Collective Success Are Rare: The foundation has a constant focus on learning and improvement, which, while laudable, can have unintended consequences. Teams struggle to take stock — and be proud — of the positive progress they are making in the real world. Instead, teams hold themselves accountable to do even more, even better, next time.

Additionally, because the foundation has so many different strategic focus areas, collective moments of success happen infrequently. One week the malaria-elimination team might be making progress in Nigeria, but simultaneously there is a setback in a college readiness program to improve graduation rates in California.

There is almost never a moment when the entire foundation can pause and celebrate a job well done, together. This contributes to a feeling that the foundation’s bold purpose is less attainable and less actionable than it actually is.

The Outliers

Although these lessons were common across many teams, they were not universal. There were a number of teams that had no purpose differential at all. Among them was the Gates Foundation’s China office, which had one of the highest “usefulness of purpose” scores that IDEO had ever encountered as part of the Creative Difference assessment.

The Gates Foundation began working in China in 2007 and now, with 25 employees, has developed many strategic partnerships with China’s public and private sectors.

We identified a number of practices that the China office employs to ensure that the foundation’s purpose functions as a useful decision-making framework and as a tool for motivating employees.

Focus & Fit: First, we realized that employees in the China office have a very specific understanding of their position within the broader foundation. The China office does one thing, and they do it quite well: helping Chinese public and private sector actors become more effective in tackling the challenges the foundation has long focused its own efforts on addressing.

They are also exceedingly clear on what they don’t focus on, and are dogmatic in maintaining that discipline. Although a seemingly simple tactic, maintaining this type of focused approach in an ambitious organization takes significant leadership.

The China office also doesn’t perceive itself as competing with the rest of the foundation’s strategies. Instead, they have a strong sense of how their work is a piece of a broader puzzle that, collectively, enables the foundation’s purpose.

That is true of all the teams that have eliminated the purpose differential.

Real-World Engagement: The second lesson is that China office staff are constantly interacting in person with “real-world” partners, such as government ministers, implementing organizations, and the people who ultimately benefit from the foundation’s work.

The office is one of a handful of teams that exist away from the foundation’s headquarters in Seattle, and it may seem obvious that staff located in the field will naturally feel more connected to the purpose. However, we found that this real-world approach was also present on the Seattle-based teams that had eliminated the purpose differential.

The leaders of these teams expect staff to engage constantly with the outside world and create space to enable their staff to break from their internal responsibilities to do so. We spoke with one leader in Seattle who is intentional about spending a half-day with an implementing organization out in the community whenever he is having a particularly bad week. “It always reminds me of why I signed up for this job.”

Celebrate Shared Success: Finally, the China office is unique in its shared sense of progress as a nation, and a sense of pride in the foundation’s role in this progress. The employees of the China office remember how poor the country was just a generation or two ago, how much poverty has been reduced in their own lifetimes, and they have deeply personal stories connected to recent progress.

It can be hard to celebrate when the work is not yet done. But the best teams understand the importance of showing how, little by little, they are meeting the foundation’s purpose. This helps staff share a greater sense that the foundation is accomplishing its mission and increases their ambition to achieve more.

Unleash the Power of Purpose

Every purpose-driven organization, no matter its size, can develop strategies for actively putting purpose into practice in the day-to-day experiences of its workforce. While the purpose alone might attract hard-working people to the team, keeping those people energized and committed depends on their feeling that the work they do each day is closely tied to the principles that brought them there in the first place — and that they are seeing real evidence, no matter how small, of the progress they are making in the real world. When those two factors are closely united, the purpose differential fades away, and the organization can more effectively and sustainably achieve its goals in the world.

IDEO Stories

"It doesn't occur to most people that everything is designed" - Bill Moggridge

Sean Hewens

Written by

Design Director at IDEO + legal innovation explorer. Writer, beer maker + fictional cartographer on the side.

IDEO Stories

"It doesn't occur to most people that everything is designed" - Bill Moggridge

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