How to Bring Purpose and Meaning into Goal Setting

Strategy & Execution,

The corporate Social Impact sector is obsessed with purpose. Does the company have a purpose? Do employees know the purpose of the company? Do they buy into it? Do our “insides match our outsides”? These questions became more prevalent at the outset of the global pandemic in 2020 and have continued to be a focal point in a churning economic and sociopolitical environment.

Let’s throw in another question: what about meaning? Purpose helps companies define their culture and their business – it’s also the “why” that many CSR teams use to guide programmatic goal setting. But meaning – how we make sense of something – tends to get left behind, often getting lost in the sometimes-myopic pursuit of purpose. It’s not enough to just strive towards purpose; we should also be asking ourselves how programs help participants make sense of their role in the Social Impact ecosystem. Programs couched in purpose with mechanisms and materials to encourage and track the role of personal responsibility and individual experience with social issues have great potential to:

  • Show the value of what’s happening “on the ground” (volunteering, giving, civic action/advocacy) and how it contributes to company purpose.
  • Deepen intrinsic motivation in participants to act in prosocial ways – those who understand the significance of their role in the Social Impact ecosystem and can connect personal meaning to corporate purpose are more likely to pursue prosocial efforts in all parts of their lives.
  • Demonstrate how individual action contributes to collective action at a company and societal level.
  • Develop skills and transfer knowledge to program participants that help deliver against not only the goals for the “S” in ESG[1] but for “E” and “G” as well. A company’s impact on all three areas relies heavily on the human beings driving these initiatives. And, as is true for many social issues, these areas are very much connected – a victory in one area is a victory in the others.

Purpose and ESG: The ‘S’ is running to catch up

The Purpose Under Pressure report defines purpose as, “An organization’s aspirational reason for being, beyond profits — grounded in humanity.” While this is a compelling definition, there are certainly large corporations out there that do not have a purpose statement grounded in humanity. But it’s what purpose should be. If we ground purpose in humanity, it means going beyond maximizing shareholder value, which is still the way many companies operate. It is a stringent capitalist approach to business that is going the way of the dinosaur as societal values and the demographics of the working world shift. Purpose Under Pressure also states that to activate purpose, companies need an effective ESG strategy. This is true, but while the indicators and tracking mechanisms for environment and governance have been in place and standardized for years, our little ‘S’ has gotten left behind. Social Impact is notoriously difficult to both standardize and track – and it can be expensive, depending on what you want to measure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth measuring.

“It can be done, but it requires a longer time horizon and an effort to understand the contributions of many organizations working in the same place at the same time, […] Delivering emergency relief and basic services in sanitation, water, and housing is easier to measure than impacts on public policy or on good governance, freedoms, and rights. Societal transformations—such as improving human rights or democratic conditions—involve multiple actors and causal mechanisms that are still poorly understood.[2].”

Putting the necessity of cross-sector partnerships and their complexity aside, if we’re going to get to a point where we’re measuring what matters, the initial hurdle persists: getting the right level of support and investment from leadership. As much as we’d all like to say we’re totally happy with our company’s leadership support and investment in Social Impact, the reality is that most companies are still prioritizing the investment in and importance of environment and governance over social. However, the current dialogue is zeroing in on impact measurement in a way it never has. If ESG (really including the ‘S’) has become central to the strategic effectiveness of a business, how do we measure all three areas and provide those results to shareholders and key stakeholders? How do we standardize it? These very big questions are a good starting point to begin thinking about what you can do – starting now – to bring purpose and meaning more intentionally into your goal setting and impact measurement.

What to consider when you’re thinking “purpose” and “meaning” for goal setting

Here are some starting points as you move into goal setting – you’re not going to save the world all at once, but you can begin calibrating your programs to be more purpose and meaning-oriented. Try to become more aware of how “purpose” looks at your company, and how to start thinking about where meaning can play a role in advancing and enhancing the experience of program participants. How are your team goals laddering up to company purpose, and how are your programs providing opportunities for sensemaking, learning, and meaningful connection to causes and the business? Benevity’s State of Corporate Purpose report outlines five top trends shaping the future of corporate purpose – we’ve added some questions under each trend to get you thinking about purpose and meaning:

Kelly Lynch

Senior Strategic Consultant

Recent Blogs:

  • In times of need, businesses are stepping up:
    1. How is your company being proactive instead of reactive about social trends and political movements?
    2. How do employees learn about social trends and political movements and their impact on the company? How do they learn about the company’s response to them? Do they have to find information externally or is it available internally?
    3. Do they have ways to provide feedback, and do they feel like they have a voice in how social trends and political movements impact the company or how the company responds?
  • At the root of the Great Resignation is the Great Search for Purpose:
    1. How are your social impact programs representing not only company purpose, but meaning at an individual level? What opportunities do employees have to:
      • Learn how to interact with community partners effectively and respectfully – partner-centric communications and collaboration
      • Understand local social issues relevant to their area of business
      • Discuss and collaborate with peers on social impact initiatives at local/national/global levels
      • Connect skills learned in social impact environments to professional development
      • Reflect openly with peers about their experiences participating in social impact
  • Employee-led action on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging is changing corporate culture from the bottom up and the inside out:
    1. Do you have the systems and structures in place to meet and amplify the prosocial work of your employees?
  • The future of corporate philanthropy is stakeholder philanthropy:
    1. Are you looking at impact through the lens of all stakeholders – not just shareholders?
    2. How and at what level are you involving the voice and expertise of community partners, advocates and allies in your social impact program design and ongoing improvement?
  • ESG is how shareholders understand purpose:
    1. How are you presenting impact data to leadership in a way that speaks to their values and to the strategic priorities of the business? Do you have leaders who can act as champions for your programming?
    2. Do you understand what shareholders need to know or hear when it comes to social impact? Can you think of what data would be most compelling? Which stories?

Need a little more help setting your goals?

If you want to make your learnings here even more actionable this year, check out our breakdown on goal setting principles, pressure-test questions, and our favorite goal setting framework. If you think you’ll need a little more support in this year, consider joining Social REV – a one-stop-shop to help you own your day and master your craft.


[1] ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance. Investors are increasingly applying these non-financial factors as part of their analysis process to identify material risks and growth opportunities.

[2] Hanna, J. Harvard Business Review. The Hard Work of Measuring Social Impact. (2010). Retrieved from

Realized Worth helps you take a transformative approach to volunteering. We work with companies to create scalable and measurable volunteering programs that empower and engage employees, focus on empathy and inclusivity, and align with your most important business objectives. Talk to us today to learn more!

Strategy & Execution

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed