“What is your purpose?” might be one of the most annoying questions anyone can ever ask you. And the constant assertion that “purpose matters” is an oversimplified, unhelpful generalization.
It’s not the question or assertion in itself that is annoying. The root problem is that most people don’t know or ever define what “purpose” means. They just know it sounds good.
Purpose does matter. It really matters. It is the compass, the north star, the guide for all your work if you let it be. It takes chaos out of community building and makes decision-making simple.
It’s easy to type out a pretty purpose statement and put it on your website. What is hard, is operationalizing that statement into a strategy and then implementing it so that it benefits your members and mission.
Yes, it’s possible to have a clear purpose that guides your work. A strategic community purpose statement simply needs some guardrails: the “who”, the “to”, and the “so that.” Let’s break these down.
The ‘Who’, ‘To’, and ‘So That’ of Strategic Purpose Statements
Who do you serve?
This component of your purpose statement is where everything else begins. You don’t (can’t) serve everyone, so you need to get specific. Define a strong identity that your ideal members share. You can do this member segment by member segment, but I prefer to find the widest definition of shared identity possible while also ensuring the community is not for everyone. This definition of “who” should help you determine the boundaries of your community — who is welcome.
If you don’t know where to begin, let’s define what a strong shared identity is:
Identity is a label, cause, profession, value(s), or group affiliation that defines who a person is. Our identities change over our lives. We form a large portion of our personal identities from our chosen communities and their shared beliefs or values.
In communities, a shared identity is an identity that your most active and engaged members would likely all use to describe themselves. What makes a strong shared identity is that it is unique, resonant, and perhaps even contrary to mainstream culture (if a group feels isolated in some way, they are often well-served by gathering digitally). The more specific you can be, the better you will be able to attract and serve your ideal members.
What do you help them do?
This portion of the purpose statement requires you put a stake in the ground about what you will do together as a community, which means you can forget about all the other distracting things you could be doing. Here, you should define 3 succinct, tactical ways that you will help members make progress.
Some of the most common statements I see are:
- Connect with like minded people
- Learn new skills
- Get inspired
These are cliches, so we have to ask ourselves: how are these activities different from what else is out there for the “who” we defined above? Is there nowhere else people can “connect with like minded people”? Great, then “connecting with like minded people” might be helpful. More often than not, you need to go a step further. Get specific about the ways you serve so you can get specific about designing an experience that will positively impact your ideal members.
Why does it matter? How do members make individual or collective progress?
At the end of the day, what is the most important reason members want to participate in your community? We have to answer this question to get at the deeper reasons why someone will show up and participate in the community. This portion of your purpose statement ensures that you infuse member motivation into everything you create for your community.
Sometimes we write “why” statements that are shallow and uninspiring. You should feel something when you read the “so that” statement. If you need to, keep asking “Why” until you hit upon a belief or value.
For instance, you might say: Members want to participate because they want to grow their professional network. Okay, sure. That’s also dull, let’s be honest.
So why do they want to grow their professional network?
So they can ask people for help when they need it and not feel stuck.
Why do they need to ask people for help when they feel stuck?
Because their workplaces expect them to be perfect and have all the answers, so they need a private place to feel safe while practicing creativity.
Ah! Safety is what is really important! They don’t feel safe to be creative in their workplaces (an issue we can’t solve directly, but we can contribute to their sense of safety and support if we help expand their networks!).
Put It Together
Your final statement should have each component, the “who”, “to”, and “so that” in one sentence. It needn’t sound pretty; this is a strategic tool you never need to share with anyone outside your team.
In the end, it might look something like this example:
We gather [busy midwestern mothers] to [trade childcare, share tips, and emotionally support each other] so that [they can regain their energy to contribute to their local communities].
That’s one simple example. Dig deeper, wherever you are. And use this statement to throw out everything that distracts you from that purpose.
If done strategically, purpose statements can anchor your work every single day. Instead of guesswork, you have clarity. This is one piece of a much larger strategic puzzle, but once you have it, you’re an enormous step closer to creating something of value in this world — not simply more noise.
Online Community Strategist
Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.
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