It’s Mandela Day and most South African organisations will be out of office for the day with their employees giving back to the community. This annual coordinated activity to make a difference is great, but should we not be doing this more than simply once per year?

There are an increasing number of individuals, from a variety of skills backgrounds, who are opting to look for new career challenges and where their focus is not on increased salary but rather the pursuit of meaning. Interestingly, there are many management consultants who are opting to switch into a more meaningful role and/or environment.

NGO landscape now more Strategic

In a highly competitive environment where there are so many Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO) chasing a limited pool of investors/donors, the need to operate more strategically has become imperative for survival. Gone are the days where an NGO could afford to operate solely on the goodwill of volunteers whose technical skills were considered second to their willingness to work, mostly for little to no compensation. Nowadays, NGOs need to think more like corporates with a focus on how to strategically position their “products and services” to appeal to their targeted “buyers” (investors and donors).

In addition to deploying clever advertising and marketing strategies, they also have the urgent need to operate in a tight fiscal framework, employing efficient administration enabling them to stretch their Rands further. The majority of NGO are required to operate like businesses, maintaining good corporate governance and ensuring strong financial stability.

To do this, NGO need to attract capable, skilled individuals who can utilise their experience and expertise within the organisation in the same way they would at a traditional corporate company. The environments are naturally different, but the downside of having to make magic with next to nothing comes with a big upside in that each employee feels a great sense of achievement and purpose when the results of their work is measurable in real-life beneficiaries and not just profits on the bottom of a balance sheet.

Of course, for many the challenge in attracting, recruiting and retaining the skills they need and want, means finding trade-offs for the often lower-than-market salaries on offer. Capitalising on the trend of individuals seeking greater meaning is key to their success.

What creates Meaning

Dr. Brent Rosso is an Associate Professor of Management at Montana State University. He examines how work comes to be perceived as meaningful, and the personal and organisational consequences of the experience of meaningful work. His research has drilled down to the 6 characteristics that commonly define meaning for most individuals.

1. Authenticity

True happiness relies on our ability to feel that we’re free to be our true selves. Authenticity is primarily achieved in one of two ways. First, it’s about working in an organisation where our values and those of the organisation align. In NGOs this is typically the case, as individuals often chose to work (or volunteer) for a cause close to their hearts, be that children, animals or the environment. The second is where we derive authenticity from the individuals we work with. The feeling that we are fully accepted as ourselves by those we spend time with day in and day out.

2. Agency

Our desire to make our own decisions, particularly those that result in giving back to others, is inherent. Meaningful work is most often associated with individuals who feel that their environment allows them to ‘make a difference’ by enabling them to make a decision – take the appropriate action – and achieve the desired goal.

3. Self-worth

We all need to feel valuable and meaning at work can be achieved if we’re able to see that our efforts contribute to the achievement of something greater than ourselves. For some, this is more readily appreciated if the value is directly linked to their efforts but for others, simply being part of a team, whose contribution is valued is enough.

4. Purpose

Consider your own experience, have you ever felt that your job had no purpose, that no matter what you do the result is no different? Now consider the opposite. An opportunity to see that your efforts are working towards the achievement of a bigger goal, even if your contribution was fairly small in the bigger scheme. A sense of purpose, whether couched as a “calling” or seen in more pragmatic terms, is critical for the achievement of meaning.

5. Belonging

We spend a lot of time at work and its natural that we’d feel more comfortable in an environment where we felt as if we belonged. Culture is critical for any organisation as happiness and sense of belonging have been proven to have a direct impact on performance. Individuals who work in environments where they value their colleagues and believe them to be “in it together” find higher levels of meaning and significance.

6. Transcendence

For some individuals meaning is created by the perception of sacrificing for the greater good, and in the NGO space this might mean trading off an otherwise greater salary in lieu of the feeling of contributing to something more than just corporate profit. For others, meaning might be created through the following of a charismatic leader or a complete commitment to a cause.

Bonus! Working in a job the creates meaning has been linked to greater overall happiness and a longer lifespan. Is it time you investigated the opportunities that exist to earn a living at the same time as giving back?