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March, 20, 2024  |    |  

How to Write a Purpose Statement

Increasingly, businesses are adopting a purpose beyond making profit. Follow this guide to create a purpose statement that generates clarity in your organization, loyalty among customers and impact among stakeholders.  

Charla Vall
Consulting Director Charla specialises in strategic planning, collective impact, sociological research, and purpose.

Purpose is a critical concept for creating a business that helps solve a societal issue, as well as generating profit. A purpose statement describes your reason for existing in a snappy, concise way. It helps leaders assess or evaluate strategies, alliances and collaborations they could develop to ‘accelerate’ towards their societal goal.

A purpose statement is not a vision or mission statement. A vision statement describes an end state and a mission describes your unique contribution to your vision. For more information on the differences, check out our explainer.  

Breaking Down the Grammatical Elements

Powerful purpose statements can be broken down into 3 grammatical parts:

  1. A transitive verb
  2. An adjective
  3. An object

Yes, I’m asking you to think back to grammar class, but I’ll help refresh your memory. A transitive verb describes the action you are taking on something. For example: empower, accelerate, build, improve and create. Adjectives describe an object. For example, beautiful, prosperous, flourishing, sustainable and clean. They aren’t always necessary to include, but they help describe the kind of results you want to see. Finally, what is the object you’re seeking to affect? Is it forests? The ocean? The planet or world as a whole? Children? A particular illness? A particular social issue, such as gender inequality or financial exclusion?  

The final statement will look something like this:

We exist to [transitive verb] a [adjective(s)] [object]. 

For example, Cisco’s purpose is to power an inclusive future for all. 

Five Characteristics of a Good Statement

1. Overlaps your Passion, your Power and a relevant societal Problem

Passion – It is essential that you and your staff have an emotional connection to your purpose in that it is rooted in the company’s values and beliefs. In other words, you and your staff must be passionate about it. If not, you, or your staff, will lose interest in it over time because you aren’t intrinsically motivated to pursue it.

Power – Additionally, it must be strategically connected to your core business, in terms of what you do well and what earns your Business a profit: this is your power. If it is not connected to what you do well, you are unlikely to generate the profits necessary to fund meaningful progress towards your purpose. You will also struggle to make it the focal point of your business and this will severely hamstring your impact. 

Problem – Thirdly, your Purpose must focus on one or more societal problems. This is what ultimately differentiates purpose-driven businesses from traditional businesses: they exist to benefit society. To do so efficiently and effectively, you must be clear about which societal problem(s) you are addressing.

2. It addresses a significant societal problem

Your Purpose statement must reflect an intent to help solve or make a sizeable impact on, a significant social or environmental challenge. If you’re not sure whether it would be considered a significant problem, look for it somewhere within the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This assures you that it is a universally agreed upon, serious problem. 

For example, you won’t find ‘improved productivity’ anywhere in the SDGs. Yes, improved productivity might benefit society, but it is not considered a significant societal problem. By reflecting the pursuit of a significant societal problem, your Purpose statement will attract, inspire and motivate employees, customers, and investors who believe in its worthiness.

3. It must be outcome-oriented

Your purpose statement is not a description of what you do. Rather, it should communicate your role in working towards a particular result. For example, “we build water sanitation technology” addresses a significant societal problem, but it describes what you’re doing, rather than the – much more compelling – reason why you’re doing this work. What result are you pursuing? To limit disease transmission? To improve health outcomes in rural areas? Reduce infant and child mortality? Clarifying your why could take your business in dramatically different directions.  

4. Your Purpose statement should reflect a long-term, aspirational quest

A Purpose statement should, ideally, last for the lifetime of your business.  This will ensure it is highly ambitious and aspirational. Why does this matter? Because meaningful change takes time, and even if it is achieved, it will require effort to sustain it. If you are serious about creating meaningful impact, you need to be in it for the long haul. For example, yes “building a daycare for underprivileged children” is a benefit to society, but it is not a long-term pursuit.

5. It should be clear and concise

This may be obvious but your purpose statement needs to be easily understood by all your stakeholders. This is why you want to aim for one sentence while avoiding the risk of being too vague. Being clear and concise is often a challenging task, but the process of working towards it will be a valuable one. If the purpose statement reflects all of these characteristics, it is likely to be an incredibly powerful one. By reflecting the pursuit of a significant benefit to society, your purpose statement will inspire and motivate employees, customers, and investors who believe in its worthiness.  

A Purpose Statement is Not a Marketing Tool

A purpose statement does not automatically make you a purpose-driven business. Your purpose must be an authentic and serious pursuit for the company; you must embed it into your business strategy and operations. 

Leaders must be undeniably committed to working towards this purpose. Without an authentic commitment at the top, efforts to be purpose-driven will fall flat. Leaders must use purpose to guide decisions and trade-offs, large and small. Leaders should be held accountable for working towards the company’s purpose, and, ideally, even your staff’s contributions should be measured as part of their performance review.  

Ready to define and embed your purpose? We’ve helped dozens of companies like yours to leverage purpose to accelerate impact. Contact us to start the conversation.