The New Pursuit of Purpose

Guest blog post by Robert Jones (Head of New Thinking, Wolff Olins).

In the last five years or so, something has changed in the world of business. I work for a brand consultancy in London, and now almost every company we meet talks about its ‘purpose’. They used to discuss their ‘vision’ or ‘mission’, but now they want something more altruistic, less self-serving: a desire to make a difference to the world. Purpose has suddenly become a universal pursuit. To reassure sceptical customers, and more immediately to attract the best talent, companies know they need a ‘purpose statement’ – though, sadly, not all companies turn those words into deeds.

So what does this trend mean for arts organisations? Surely arts centres, theatre companies, museums and galleries have always had a sense of purpose. Their people have always been motivated by non-commercial ambitions, by a desire to make a mark, or to make a difference. But these values are usually not explicit. They’re in the organisational climate, but not written as a mantra. Now, many cultural organisations also want to define their purpose more overtly.

There are, of course, dangers in being explicit – dumbing down, oversimplifying, cutting out dissent, becoming blind to alternatives. As the cultural commentator Bryan Appleyard has said, simplicity can be the tool of the tyrant. But, on balance, the benefits are huge. A clear purpose can galvanise an organisation, as we’ve seen with clients like Tate, Historic Royal Palaces and most recently Art Fund. It helps attract and keep the best people. It helps clarify strategy, propel innovation and accelerate decision-making. And it helps attract funders (who want to know that, by investing in your purpose, they can help achieve theirs.)

And a great deal of the value comes from the process of finding that definition – getting people across the organisation to surface their individual values, to look outwards, and to enlarge their ambitions. We all spend a lot of time thinking about what we do and how we do it, and for me, the excitement of purpose is that it forces us all to ask a more profound question: why, as an organisation, we exist.

More about Robert…


Robert Jones is Head of New Thinking in Wolff Olins, London, where his focus is to help organisations work out what they want to stand for, how they’ll stand out and help them to never stand still.

Robert will deliver an interactive workshop – What do We Stand for? Building a Brand From Why – on 18 November. This is the second event in our ‘Network, Not Work’ series, bringing the NI cultural sector together for more than the usual small talk.

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