Noble Purpose and Grand Challenges: the keystone of membership organizations’ future success

Does Your Organization Have a Noble Purpose?

Noble purpose is a concept and methodology developed by business leader Lisa McLeod after a lightbulb moment in which she realized that a sense of authentic purpose drives top performance, individually and organizationally. She summarizes her firm’s global study of sales leaders, “the salespeople who sold with noble purpose — who truly wanted to make a difference to customers — consistently outsold the salespeople who were focused on sales goals and money.”

Publication of her book, Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud, launched a major trend now embraced by leading businesses, including Merrill Lynch, where John Thiel, leader of the 100-year-old brokerage, exhorted financial advisors attending the firm’s 2014 annual meeting to identify, “What’s your Noble Purpose?”

Flight Centre is using Noble Purpose

McLeod’s concept of selling with Noble Purpose™ reframes leadership objectives and the sales process. It has been embraced at the senior-most level of firms large and small because it works:

  • Toronto-based G Adventures, the market leader in adventure travel, began implementing the Noble Purpose methodology in early 2013. Twelve months later, they had increased sales by 35 percent.
  • Flight Centre, one of the world’s largest travel agencies with operations in 11 countries and $15 billion in revenue, began applying Noble Purpose in November of 2013.  By July 2014 customer complaints had declined significantly, resulting in a decrease in year-over-year volume of complaints for the first time in eight years.

  • One year after implementing Noble Purpose, Boston-based Sunovian Pharmaceuticals’ double-digit growth exceeded all earnings expectations.

Noble Purpose is the lynchpin of membership organizations’ future success because it fundamentally transforms the stakeholder base. Association leaders who figure out how to parlay the expertise and know-how of their members to address the world’s challenges will gain a completely different level of support, coming from all who benefit. These beneficiaries extend well beyond the traditional membership base, and channel members’ expertise and experience to serve others.

Associations have traditionally made serving their members their primary, and in many cases solitary, focus. For an association with 70,000 members, that means there are 70,000 people invested in that group’s success. Yet if you can figure out how to harness the expertise and experience of those 70,000 people and leverage it into service of a community of two million (or more), you will have just multiplied your stakeholder base by thirty. You will engage not only those core allies but all of their stakeholders, as well. Now you have dramatically expanded the group that wants you to succeed and is willing to commit resources of time, money, and energy. And, you are advancing your members’ best interest by invigorating and expanding the value they provide to others.

Finding Your Grand Challenge

Several membership organizations I work with have already put Noble Purpose to work through a grand challenge.  A grand challenge is bold and aspirational goal that requires innovation to solve publicly recognized important issue while capturing the imagination. Here are some examples from the association world:

  • Barbara Byrd Keenan, CEO of the Endocrine Society and former CEO of the Institute of Food Technology, led an initiative to apply the expertise of food technologists to the global dilemma of feeding the world’s future population, 9 billion in 2050. She garnered the attention and support of large, multi-national corporations, as well as multi-lateral development organizations like USAID.
  • Chris McEntee, Executive Director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, is developing the Thriving Earth Exchange, a platform for bringing together people who need solutions, scientist problem-solvers, and sponsor-funders.
  • David Gammel, Executive Director of the Entomological Society of America, is bringing bug scientists together to deal with issues of global import such as the prevention of insect-borne disease, food contamination, and threats to shelter.

Here are some things to consider if you would like to lead a grand challenge:

1. The CEO must take this on as a special project, as this kind of visionary effort relies on the confluence of (a) the CEO’s passion, (b) her ability to marshal and develop her organization’s capacity to deliver, and (c) her ability to communicate the emotional core of this effort to all the various stakeholders.

2. Conduct an ethnographic investigation to identify and articulate the emotional center of this work, the powerful human magnet that will draw the best minds and the necessary resources to you to achieve this new challenge. The more powerful this is, the easier it will be to attract resources and find partners with power to contribute. Ethnographic research is done through research, conversations, focus groups, and meetings with key players. Some of these people are known and others will be identified along the way, including:

a. Individual star players inside the membership

b. External thought leaders

c. Other leaders of grand challenges in other organizations

d.  Volunteer leaders

3. Study and document other organizations that are pursuing their own grand challenges to identify other working leadership models for you to adopt or transpose to your needs.

4. Develop your Road Map to include a timeline, milestones, and resource requirements: the people, skills, work, time, and budget necessary to move from current operations through execution.

Rough Timeline:

A grand challenge typically takes 12-24 months from initial idea to ready-for-execution, depending upon how much attention the CEO gives to it. Many activities are iterative. Below is a rough sketch of the life of the project in three stages: Foundation, Development, and Summit.

Foundation is all about building the acceptance, appetite, and conceptual infrastructure to support what is bound to be an up-and-down journey filled with slow climbs and fast accelerations.  Development is the process of growing, advancing, and refining your grand challenge so it is robust, well-supported, and well thought out. Summit is when it all comes together and leads to a celebrity spokesperson, visionary assembly, and the launch.

Foundation stage:

·      Meet with your staff

·      Speak with Board members

·      Develop early outreach materials to circulate and convey the beginning of something extraordinary

·      Conduct initial focus groups

·      Convene a senior staff workshop

·      Gather a candidate list of potential visionaries: people of influence, celebrities, and thought leaders.

·      Conduct the ethnographic research

·      Develop a trial set of emotional attractors to test

·      Begin survey of other organizations conducting grand challenges

Development stage:

·      Identify and contact visionaries attracted to helping to develop the challenge

·      Test and refine the emotional attractors with key groups and visionaries

·      Survey the market for competing and allied initiatives

·      Identify potential partners and reach out

·      Work with the Board of Directors

·      Initiate an internal communication campaign

·      Contact and gather information from other organizations with grand challenges

·      Review other organizational models and to adapt to your own purposes

·      Build the roadmap

Summit stage:

·      Identify key collaborators

·      Build short list of celebrities

·      Identify and approach partners

·      Begin development of an external campaign

·      Enroll key supporters

·      Select spokesperson

·      Convene visionaries and people of influence

·      Announce the launch including key activities

Noble Purpose and grand challenges are skeleton keys to success, opening doors that generate interest, investments, resources, and relevance on an unprecedented scale. And on top of all that, they are good for our world.

image credit: association resources

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Transforming Associations to Meet 21st-Century ChallengesSeth Kahan  is Associations Editor for Innovation Excellence. Seth helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, American Geophysical Union, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His new book is, Getting Innovation Right: How Leaders Leverage Inflection Points to Drive Success. His previous book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, was a business bestseller. Learn more about Seth’s work at

Seth Kahan




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