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Women in business for a purpose

20 October 2014

Melissa Macpherson Rachael McLennan

People for Purpose recently celebrated two years in business. The organisation has grown from two founders, Melissa Macpherson (left) and Rachael McLennan (right), to include a business development manager and two consultants, one in marketing and media and the other in executive search.

In the past two years Rachael estimates more than 3000 people have come to the fledgling organisation wanting to connect and work with the not-for-profit (NFP) sector, or as they prefer to call it, the for-purpose sector. From her experience of the market and official figures she’s not expecting to see a decline in this number.

For instance, 2006-7 ABS figures identified 59,000 economically significant NFPs, contributing $43 billion to Australia's GDP, and eight percent of employment.

Rachael says sector growth is about two percent on average annually.

According to a report done by the Productivity Commission a few years ago, the not-for-profit (NFP) sector is made up of a diverse range of entities defined by a number of terms, including: third sector, voluntary sector, social economy, social enterprise, for purpose.

Along with this plethora of descriptors, the report noted that among the wider community the understanding of the sector's role and contribution to society and the economy is “poor and deserving of attention”.

The Commission’s report estimates there are approximately 600,000 organisations in the sector – it’s surprising how many Bridge clubs there are. Many do not operate in the market (or economic) sector, and only a relatively small number (around 20,000), mainly in the human services area, rely heavily on government as their main source of funding.

NFPs deliver services to their members, to their clients or to the community, such as welfare, education, sports, arts, worship, culture and emergency services. Some NFPs build or maintain community endowments such as biodiversity, cultural heritage and artistic creations. Some engage in educative, advocacy and political activities, while for others the focus is on activities that create fellowship.

Many offer their participants the opportunities to build a sense of self-worth and through connection and influence form an important part of the foundations of an active civil society.

The Commission report also noted a decline in volunteer levels in some areas, as well as hours worked by volunteers, but estimated that there are around 4.6 million volunteers working with NFPs with a wage equivalent value of $15 billion.

If the amount of bodies climbing People for Purpose’s stoop is anything to go by, the explosion of interest in men and women looking to work (including in a volunteer capacity) in the sector will only get louder.

Accompanying that interest is a lot of confusion and misunderstanding on all sides about: what the work in the NFP sector looks like; what the for-purpose sector understands about the corporate world and vice versa and when it comes to candidates looking for work, do they understand their own purpose and drives and the issues around telling their story so the NFP sector can understand what they offer.

For the NFP sector, Rachael and Melissa believe it needs to spend time looking for the right candidates and learn not only how to attract but retain talent, and then there is the issue of volunteering …

The list of obstacles to hire, potential pitfalls and issues around communication is as long as your arm.

On the flipside though, there’s the positive desire by candidates to want to engage and be part of something bigger - to support, help and make a difference in society in a ‘meaningful’ way, a way that makes sense and achieves outcomes.

At a recent meeting with People for Purpose in its compact Sydney CBD offices, Melissa quickly pointed out that working in this sector or with this sector you learn that disadvantage exists in Australia… a lot of disadvantage.

Journalist Peter Hartcher’s piece in the October 14 Sydney Morning Herald goes some way to explaining why disadvantage exists and why it will only continue to grow: Income inequality, the fact that less and less people are in control of more and more of the wealth, is on the top of everyone’s agenda and is of growing concern, worldwide, he notes, going on to point out that economic prosperity is important but without a fair distribution of the benefits of economic growth we will create greater and greater disadvantage.

Rachael and Melissa’s experience is that there are many people out there at varying ages and life stages who want to be part of something greater than adding to shareholder value.

Both women have worked in the corporate sector, one in investment banking the other in marketing in hospitality, and transitioned some years ago now to the for-purpose sector seamlessly and successfully.

“The gap connecting people to the for-purpose sector successfully, as well as the sector to the people they need, is huge,” says Rachael.

“We were seen as having made the transition from corporate to for-purpose successfully,” continues Melissa, “and others were coming to us for advice. We were also surrounded by people who had made the transition successfully who were being approached as well. It made us think there’s a need for a real, formal service here.”

Rachael and Melissa believe the demand exists because people have discovered they’re living a life with two very different value systems at work.

“One of the positive repercussions of the GFC is it’s called into question what people value,” says Melissa.

“I see it as a positive product of the tumultuous financial times we have been through that men, especially, realise that producing positive results for the shareholder has left them unconnected to themselves, their families,” she continues.

Not so surprisingly, perhaps, People for Purpose deals with more men than women. 

In fact, say the founders, the split is about 60/40 men and women, and that’s on the increase.

“So many arrive on our doorstep looking for meaning, purpose, wanting their life to amount to something more, and that will magically happen if they get a job in the for-purpose sector,” says Rachael, going on to point out, “We say, hold on. Moving to the for-purpose sector is not going to give you value and purpose and meaning, that has to come from inside you.

“We support them to understand what drives them, what allows them to connect. The recruitment tool is something for later.”

The People for Purpose business is about managing expectations: the expectations of those wanting to work for the sector, and when it comes to the sector, around what they’re looking for and finding the correct fit.

“Too many times the sector goes to its networks and taps people on the shoulder in its search for staff or board members, etc. It doesn’t work. I know. It takes between 75 and 100 hours to do a really great placement,” explains Rachael.

Rachael and Melissa also believe the urge to connect is driven by the Millennials - the children of the adults they see - who want to work in something meaningful.

“Usually people follow a pattern: ‘struggle, success, significance’ in their lives and career. Millennials are coming to us in the ‘struggle’ part of their lives wanting to do something ‘significant’, which is something we used to associate with a later stage in a person’s career,” says Melissa.

Millennials are also at the stage where the wages offered by the NFP sector, which tend to be low, are in line with what they would be getting as a junior in the corporate world and the hours they’d be working, fairly similar.

“Thinking it through,” says Melissa, “the Millennials have decided if I am going to work that hard and for not much anyway then I want to contribute and do something amazing now, not repeat the lives of my parents working in a law or accounting firm or whatever for 60 hours a week to eventually come out the other side unhappy, unfulfilled and unconnected.”

From the sector’s point of view, Rachael and Melissa believe it has no trouble attracting talent but retaining talent is difficult. They believe the sector needs to invest in developing and supporting its people and in finding and progressing career paths.

Two interesting movements they’ve experienced lately are the development of the intrepreneur, and the interest corporates are taking in educating their senior executives and management around what the for-purpose sector does and how they can engage with it while remaining in their jobs.

“We run free 90-minute workshops to support people to find what it is and how they want to connect. We also manage candidates’ expectations around value, work, remuneration, how to tell your story. Lately, we’ve seen an increase in corporates asking us to carry out workshops to do with staff engagement, which is where we see people who don’t want or can’t afford to leave a career becoming intrepreneurs,” explains Rachael.

“Perhaps,” she continues, “you work for a large FMCG which sources a product or service from a country with poor labour laws, and your position allows you to change the process or flow around the community from which the product is being sourced and in doing so that makes a difference in the community on a wider level, achieving better social outcomes for it and you haven’t left your desk… that’s being an intrepreneur. We’re seeing a lot of corporates actively engaging their senior staff to make a difference on a wider community level from within the organisation.”

No doubt, it also means they’re not losing all that experience in the rush to find meaning.




  • Melanie Raymond

    Melanie Raymond 5 years ago

    The work of the NFP sector is rewarding and very complex indeed. One of the areas I have identified as a Board priority is workforce planning although without the funding streams this is difficult. In charities donors tend to resent contributing to the running costs of the organisation, though we can't achieve the impact without supporting our infrastructure. The commercial word has much to learn from the NFP world's survival instincts.