April 2, 2014

The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World


Aaron Hurst

Leading with Purpose

The most important factor in Mozilla’s success has been its audacious goal: to create Internet for the people, by the people. It was a statement of a vision for the world, but also a clear battle cry from Mozilla against the Goliath that stood in its way. Super-sizing the ambitions for a project or organization is a powerful draw; it pulls in talent to join your efforts and propels them forward with you as a team. Dreams for how your work will change lives and communities also act as powerful magnets for financial investment. It is much easier to resource an audacious idea than a modest one.

This does not change with financially-driven businesses. Modest business ideas might get a bank loan, but an audacious idea will require more risk, often in the form of venture funding. The top talent and largest financial investments are made in the biggest ideas—even if they are risky. The same is true with all Purpose Economy organizations.

When I left Chicago and moved to Silicon Valley, I had a simple question in mind. How do we ensure all nonprofits have what it takes to scale and achieve their missions? But it was my experience, first at dot-coms and then in conversations with nonprofit leaders, that transformed my initial question into a riskier but ultimately more game-changing venture.

Elaine Mason, then a vice president at MTV, now at American Express as vice president of their organizational development department, greatly affected my thinking at that time. I met Elaine shortly after we had opened our office in New York City. She had started her career in the nonprofit sector and—like me and so many others—left in frustration. It wasn’t due to lower compensation; it was a result of the lost opportunity and growth potential. Elaine saw the potential for Taproot to not only make nonprofits more effective by providing pro bono work, but to actually help transform the whole nonprofit sector by attracting and retaining the best talent. How much more appealing might work in the sector be if nonprofit organizations had reliable access to the same marketing, technology, and management resources as leading companies?

That was the goal of the Taproot Foundation when we launched in 2001. We weren’t looking to provide volunteers to nonprofits. We weren’t just looking to help nonprofits in the Bay Area. We weren’t looking to change the way companies leveraged their talent for good. We were set on ensuring all nonprofits across the nation had the resources they needed to thrive. Ultimately, our vision became that by 2020, high-quality pro bono service would be available everywhere, and all the key business professions would have adopted the pro bono ethic. It was an audacious goal to set for ourselves—bold, but not quixotic—and it has been the north star that has guided us through so many difficult challenges.

If we don’t set super-sized goals at the outset, we’re almost certain not to achieve them.

In committing to Taproot’s vision of all businesses adopting the pro bono ethic, I drew from a well-established precedent set by others who had pursued ambitious goals to achieve the unachievable.


This kind of thinking propels many successful ventures in the Purpose Economy. While people will always find satisfaction from small wins (and they’re important steps in any truly novel or influential achievement), it’s the big, hairy, audacious goals that ignite commitment and overcome the pessimism from intermediary failures. We are all busy, and our resources are stretched. It’s the historic opportunities that spur us to change our priorities and let our purpose prevail.

Pursuing a more moderate goal can actually cripple you. One thing the dot-com era taught me was the importance of framing your work in terms of potential—you didn’t get investment unless you could prove you could change an industry or create a new one. If you just wanted to create a nice business, you went to the bank for a loan. If you want to aim for the stars, you need rocket fuel.

Removing Silos

The emerging model, where an organization’s community cuts across employee, contractor, and customer lines, is increasingly common in the Purpose Economy. It is designed to build long-term communities that support the mission of the firm. But what’s really radical about it is that at any given time, a member could simultaneously be a shareholder, customer, and employee. The blurring of customer and employee isn’t only happening with 21st century-born companies. Even for companies like Ford, customers are increasingly driving sales, generating input for new services, and building the company’s brand. People want to know what their friends and contacts think, do, eat, read, listen to, and buy, because often, “this will be similar to how they want to think, act and buy.”1

Customers make up a crucial part of the value generation process. Other traditional organizational lines are disappearing as well. Marketing and HR have traditionally been the two core functions in a company concerned with people. They both focus on how to attract and engage people in the mission of the company, and for a long time they have been able to operate in a largely disconnected fashion, but that is becoming less possible or desirable. Smart companies today have started to think of these roles in less siloed ways, instead combining the functions to be in service of the larger community as a whole. By combining these functions, organizations are not only more efficient and effective, they become something far more important, more human-centered.

Community Organizing

Community organizing is the art of motivating and leading people to lead themselves. It is leadership in its purest form. Or, as Harvard’s Marshall Ganz more eloquently defines it, community organizing is “the act of accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.” There is perhaps no greater expert on community organizing than Marshall Ganz. He is largely credited with designing the wildly successful grassroots organizing strategy for Barack Obama’s 2008 run for president. By then, he had been organizing for over 40 years, beginning with civil rights work in Mississippi and then under the mentorship of one of the greatest organizers in history, Cesar Chavez.

This kind of community leadership is essential to the success of an organization like Mozilla, where there is little distinction between employees, freelancers, volunteers, and users. Everyone is part of the community. At many points during Mozilla’s 2013 summit, there were major disagreements; volunteers and employees passionately argued about the direction of the organization. But rather than step in and resolve the issues or force decisions, the Mozilla leadership created space for the disagreements to play out—they trusted the community to resolve the issues. Rather than prescribe top-down solutions, they allowed the solutions to come from the bottom up.


Work Without Managers

A disintermediated workforce is not as radical as it sounds, and is an idea that several companies are experimenting with, most notably Evan Williams’ new company, Medium. Evan wanted to boost creativity from his whole team, solve problems more quickly, spend less time in meetings, speed production, and have the entire team truly understand the business. As Evan describes it, as a team they define the game they are playing and how they keep score. They then break their work into projects and nail down the goals and scope. From concept to launch, each project cuts across all parts of the organization and is tracked visually on a board in the office. No one works directly for anyone else. It is up to you if you want to take the lead to make something happen. To get help, you have to convince others to help you. Finally, they avoid all deadlines and structured meetings.

He reports it has worked remarkably well. “The team is ruthlessly focused on the right things with a fraction of the input.” Admittedly, they are a small company of what Evan describes as “incredibly well-rounded individuals”. But in spite of its small-scale experiment, it is inspiring others like Debbie Cohen, Head of People at Mozilla, and more recently Tony Hsieh at Zappos, to push the limits of what work can and should be.


By choosing work rich in purpose, we become vulnerable. Vulnerability is at the core of being human. It will require a new kind of leadership to find creative ways to make it safe to be vulnerable. This is the riddle of leading in the Purpose Economy.

An Incremental Change—Leader as Conductor

For many, the jump to completely integrating a community may be too great a risk and too heavy a lift to do all at once. Elance’s Fabio Rosati uses a conductor as a metaphor for an incremental shift in how an organization can approach leadership that points it in the right direction. As he puts it, “A conductor is not someone who tells people what to do, but rather someone who orchestrates work. A conductor is also an extraordinary motivator and is really good at understanding the skills of every person, and how these skills can be brought together.”

While short of fully embracing community organizing, the leader-as-conductor metaphor creates a mental model for how to lead increasingly fluid teams comprised of core in-house staff and a distributed outside work force with highly specialized skills brought in for particular jobs. Fabio is using the model himself at Elance, where one-third of the staff is full-time and two-thirds are freelancers. He is seeing that the organizations using this model are generally doing it well, largely because people are so ready to work this way.

This doesn’t mean that a Purpose Economy leader is just another member of the team. As Fabio points out, “Somebody still has to step out and say, ‘Here’s what we need to accomplish.’” This manner of leadership requires not only orchestration, but inspiration and empathy. Crucial to this is a deep understanding of what people are feeling, and respecting and encouraging their desire for expression, something I’ve found particularly powerful in building Taproot.

Learning to relinquish control and to be more collaborative isn’t going to be just a choice for much longer. With the current flood of people out of the traditional workforce, and as the Purpose Economy grows larger, more of us won’t be working in or leading organizations at all; we’ll be crafting working groups of independent talent to tackle projects on a case by case basis. For years, I was told by mentors that as CEO, I should be leading and not doing. The fact that I still did a lot of writing, as well as program and visual design, was seen as a founder’s failure to let go. And yet, some of my most rewarding hours were doing these tasks, and frankly, the results resulted in some of our highest impact.

These tasks gave me purpose, as they allowed me to express myself. This is something few leaders give themselves permission to do, and yet it is one of the most powerful things you can do for an organization. For a recent event, I drew portraits of the one hundred attendees. It took a day to do, but made me feel connected to the attendees. In studying their faces, I saw old friends in new ways and started to relate to new friends before I met them. It made the group feel like a community and increased my empathy. It also really made an impact on their experience to receive a framed portrait that was drawn by the CEO. One attendee, a senior executive from Accenture, tweeted that it was the best event giveaway ever.

Even as a conductor, you need to occasionally pick up an instrument to play. It is a fine balance to achieve, but a conductor who never plays music stops relating to the orchestra and may fall out of love with music. It is very hard to retain a sense of purpose, or a contagious kind of passion, if you forbid yourself from being expressive and creative.

Taken from The Purpose Economy © Copyright 2014 by Aaron Hurst . Published by Elevate Publishing, Boise, ID. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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