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Our collective social media experiences are becoming progressively more negative and toxic. Our social feeds are overflowing with tricks, hacks and best practices to “drive engagement”. The best of these techniques tap into a person’s intrinsic motivation to trigger participation, the worst rely on psychological manipulation and negative emotional responses. Perhaps a greater tragedy is the vast ocean of wasted time, attention and cognition of the participants in mass social media.

If left unchecked, the negativity, toxicity and waste are only going to get worse —  especially if you consider that there are projections that most everyone on earth will be connected to “the network” by 2025.

What if there was a way to create sustained engagement in communities and social experiences that harnessed genuine motivation and strove for positive outcomes for participants? I think the answer lies in focusing on the power of purpose to motivate community engagement and guide community activities towards positive outcomes  —  where community members and host organizations collaboratively evolve towards better versions of themselves over time.

Purpose-based communities

As community builders, we’ve always known that we needed to define a community’s purpose as part of strategic development, but we generally haven’t paid much attention to the role of purpose for individual community participants. Tactical goals in the context of a community experience, yes. Thinking about the community member as a “whole person” with a life beyond your community? Let’s be honest  —  rarely.

Our community experiences today are largely designed around the limitations of the platform on which we grow our communities. Content (posts and messages) is typically the most dynamic element, followed by algorithmically-driven “streams”. Reputation elements develop over time and are helpful to make judgements about the value of content and contributors, but it is hard to say any given community experience truly evolves. On the whole, the online community experiences today are surprisingly static.

There is opportunity for improvement here. Looking at communities through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can make a case that online communities support many of the needs that Abraham Maslow describes in his model, especially 1.) Belonging (through social connections), and 2.) Esteem (through participation and the advancement through reputation system). The missing ingredient has been the proverbial top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization.

What might happen if the community and social experiences we designed supported the discovery, refinement and actualization of a person’s purpose?

Next, think about what a community might look like if the host organization was actively refining and expressing its purpose through community interactions. In the book “Exponential Organizations”, Salim Ismail puts forward the idea of a “Massive Transformational Purpose”, or MTP, that describes the purpose of the organization to drive radical change or transformation within a specific context. An Organization’s MTP attracts passionate advocates, helps align stakeholders and, motivates and guides activities towards fulfilling on the MTP’s intent. The relationship between community members and the host organization, when aligned towards actualization of a purpose, or MTP, can create incredible value and positive outcomes at scale.

As an example: If a software company’s purpose is to empower the world through digital design software, you could imagine community activities going well beyond break/ fix support forums and into education, skills mentoring and specific efforts to empower people in the developing world with new skills and tools. The host organization evolves from an authoritarian role to become an active partner in co-development. A diagram of the system might look something like this:

Development of the purpose-based community model: initial research and pilot

In November of 2015, I was honored to be chosen as part of the inaugural Rand Fellows with the Life Reimagined Institute. I was asked to be team leader and had the opportunity to work with Bryan Dik, Brooke Erol and Roberta Taylor on my team. Our team was mentored by an amazing group of thought leaders, including Richard Leider, Alan Weber (co-founder of Fast Company) and Dr. Janet Taylor. The goal of my team was to create community-based programs that help people discover, refine and express their purpose. My team of fellows is in the middle of a pilot and research project that lasts through the end of July to study the best ways to help our community of participants discover, refine and express purpose through their work. Our team took the Life Reimagined process (shown in the graphic below) and mapped community activities to each stage to come up with the needed content and features for our pilot community program.

Meaningful results beyond engagement

One of the most incredible outcomes of our pilot program was that we saw significant improvement in 12 of 20 psychosocial variables that we measured in our participants. Specifically, we saw large gains in feelings of happiness, resilience, presence of meaning, and career decision self-efficacy. We also saw reductions in feelings of loneliness and depression in participants.

We are in the early days of developing a model for Purpose-based Communities but we are already seeing impactful results from our studies. The Purpose-based model I’ve described is starting to emerge in the wild, and I would offer the Family Independence Initiative (Fii) Up Together community as an early example.


Family Independence Initiative: Up Together Community

The time to consider the implications and possibilities is now if you want your organization’s community to evolve beyond static growth, low engagement and specious results & impact. There are many positive and disruptive implications of the model — I’ve highlighted a few below.

Shared Transformational Purpose of Community

Organizations will have to frame the purpose of their community as transformational, which implies meaningful activities, a commitment to a higher calling (beyond individual or specific business function), and the systems and programs needed to work together, over time. Individual community members will need help to define, refine and express their purpose in the community experience. A Transformational Purpose model will need to be developed, similar to the systems diagram above.

Purpose Expressed in Community Leadership and Actions (Member)

Once the Transformational Purpose Model is created, more effective Member journeys, reputation and roles can be developed that align near term activities with longer-term accomplishments.

Evolving Role of Community Manager

Once the language of purpose is understood in a community, and once members and hosts can share their purpose (via statements/profile), the community managers/hosts can play a critical role of connecting members with the content, people and activities they need to actualize the member’s purpose.

A New System of Context & Feedback Loops (Platform)

New tools and methods are actively being developed to facilitate purpose discovery, and to drive the community experience through context (activity streams, member matching and networking, journey models) and the resulting feedback loops.

In summary

Creating a Transformational Purpose-based model for communities will be a breakthrough in performance, engagement and impact for many organizations. This new model will create the canvas for life-long relationships that are based on transformational and mutually beneficial outcomes for the host and member. In a nonprofit setting, community members can include donors and all other relevant stakeholders. Community platforms, programs and roles will need to evolve to realize the full value of the model.

If you are interested in learning more, or holding a workshop to activate the transformational purpose of your online community, please reach out:



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.