Creating Meaning

As human beings, we crave belonging and seek to find a meaningful existence. Very often, that feeling of meaning comes from helping others. One of the many reasons that people start nonprofits is to give meaning – to life, to a memory, to a person, to a cause.  Having a nonprofit creates a structure and a platform from which one can elevate a message and aim for a solution or a cure or an answer.

There are nonprofits staffed with some of the most eager and idealistic people the world has to offer. Nonprofit work is not easy, but it can be incredibly rewarding. In the best situations it causes people to look at the world differently, to find solutions beyond the obvious and to work harder on behalf of those whom the organization represents. Nonprofits, in their very purest form, can create meaning.

However, nonprofits are plagued with the same challenges as any other organization in the global marketplace. Every day there are new nonprofits competing for the same donor dollars. Generally, nonprofits’ intents are purse Most of the motivation is selfless. So what causes one to create lasting meaning while another is left behind?

Last week, I attended a seminar by marketing guru Seth Godin. He spoke on his new book, Linchpin, and the new economic marketplace. His focus was on individuals, but some of what he said (and what is in his book) resonated for me in regards to creating meaning as a person and as a nonprofit organization. In his book, he writes of the new “American Dream”:

Be remarkable. Be generous. Create art. Make judgment calls. Connect people and ideas.

He writes that the new dream is about “vision and engagement.” As nonprofits we have an already have a vision, or we wouldn’t exist. Most nonprofit organizations seek to engage the world to come together to create art (solutions). We celebrate the remarkable. We generously give money and time and information to those whose lives we seek to improve.  We make judgment calls – determining how we can attain the most good for the greatest number of people with the limited resources we have.  By virtue of working to serve some sector of the population, we aspire to connect people and ideas.

Organizationally, we might (at least on paper) have it right. Yet how many of us who work for nonprofits are engaged in the same path of creating meaning? How many of us have a vision? How many of us seek the things Mr. Godin suggests? Do our employees exude the same passion that our brand does? Do we seek to create real, tangible meaning in our day-to-day work behind the scenes?

Or do we settle for average?

I thought a lot about it as I read Linchpin. A nonprofit organization doesn’t set out to be average. Average doesn’t change people or save the world or find cures or save the whales. However, while the organization’s vision may not be average, it will only truly fulfill its vision if the people behind the scenes are extraordinary.

Mr. Godin has this to say about that very thing:

“The only way to win is to race to the top … An organization of indispensable people doing important work is remarkable, [successful] and indispensable in and of itself. What the [organization] really wants is an artist, someone who changes everything, someone who makes dreams come true. What the [organization] really wants is someone who can see the reality of today and describe a better tomorrow.”

What the organization really needs is people who are as committed to creating meaning as much as the organization. Together, with a solid vision and a group of employees creating real, tangible meaning each day – we have the opportunity to truly change the way things get done. To have more resources, more bandwidth and more ability to impact our neighbors, our communities and our world.

How do you create meaning at your organization?

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