Together Institute
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Together Institute

Do we undervalue the role of personal interest in purpose-driven communities?

And at what cost?

Photo by Crazy Cake

A few years ago I attended a three day gathering, bringing together members of a network hosted by a non-profit. The network exists to advance the SDG goals and all network members are doing purpose-driven work, in some shape or form. The SDGs were also the red thread throughout the gathering: There were presentations about the SDGs and discussions about how we can help to advance the SDGs. One of my personal highlights came from a 1:1 conversation with another participant. The organizers had paired me up with a social entrepreneur and handed us a set of suggested questions. Our conversation flowed nicely and at some point we came to the question: How do the SDGs show up in your work? I still remember my fellow participant’s answer: “In my work the SDGs aren’t that central. I’m mostly here to meet interesting people that might help me bring my own project forward. But don’t tell anyone, I don’t want to be disrespectful, this has been such an amazing gathering”. His answer has stayed with me, because that is exactly how I felt as well. And, it stayed with me, because we both felt like we had to hide our true intentions of being there. We felt it would be disrespectful to the conveners to tell them that our true motivations to show up were driven mostly by the interests of our own projects versus the stated purpose of the gathering.

Why do people really show up?

Since then I have started paying attention to this dynamic in purpose-driven communities and I have experienced it many times since then. In the social change sector, groups are convened to advance a specific, collective purpose. But when I dig under the surface for what truly motivates people to be there, I observe:

  • The shared purpose is important for people to know what this group is roughly about, what kind of people they can expect. It’s an initial reason to say yes and to give this group a try.
  • 90% of people’s energy comes from their own personal interest. Often members are part of these groups exactly because they are working on their own purpose-driven projects.
  • Almost always, there is much talk and conversation about the shared purpose. But the individual interest gets unmentioned.

Personal interests are a central source of energy for the whole group, not a distraction. Especially in purpose-driven communities.

I think we do a big disservice, not only to the individual members, but to these groups overall, if we stigmatize personal interest:

  • Many groups struggle with engagement. We need to be clear and honest about why people show up. Personal motivations are the biggest source of energy for any group. We need to understand what will get them to show up not just once, but why they will continue to engage.
  • If we understand their personal needs, we can choose formats and practices that help them advance their projects (vs deepening the shared purpose).

Why is it a taboo?

I have tried to bring this up with some organizers over the years, mostly without success. I found that this can feel very personal, even hurtful, to accept that people might only care to a small extent about your shared agenda and are mostly driven by their own. But I don’t think this a symptom of the organizers doing anything wrong. I think this is just human nature. We can either embrace it and design for it, or ignore it (and pay the price in the form of superficial engagement).

The organizers that seem to struggle the most with this are people who create communities under the umbrella of an established organization. It’s hard enough to make a case to invest into community weaving in the first place. It’s an even harder sell to convince your superiors that we need to create space for people’s personal interests, even when they might not be fully aligned with the org’s mission.

Not an issue in small and local groups

I have also noticed that this gap, between personal and shared motivation, isn’t true in all groups. The smaller and more local a group gets, the more closely aligned personal and shared interests can become. But the bigger the group, the broader and vaguer the purposes often are.

Related concepts

What do you think?

Have you experienced a similar taboo around personal motivations? And how can we overcome this? I’d love to read your comments and reactions, thank you for sharing them.

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