Lisa Cotton, Founder and CEO Ideology Group

Finding work with meaning and soul has become one of the greatest aspirations of our turbulent times.  But achieving it rarely comes by accident or as an epiphany, rather it’s something we build up to and integrate into our lives.

If you’re reading this article, you probably have some interest in exploring your social conscience. You might be considering your purpose, or pondering why you’re feeling largely unsatisfied or unsettled in your current situation.

Many of us harbour these emotions at some point in our lives, but then get caught up with everyday demands. How do we explore these feelings? To whom do we speak? Is it worth the effort?

I can’t imagine working and living without a higher purpose. My purpose is hugely aspirational: it gets me up early in the mornings and thinking late into the night. It infuses my discussions with what’s possible and it challenges my mind with why nots.

It’s taken me years to gain clarity on where I’m best focused and I’ve done it through research, aligning myself with people and organisations who share my values and, most importantly, through different experiences. As a result, my capacity for empathy has grown, my connectedness to the world has deepened and I’ve had defining moments of motivation through people touching me with their life stories.

I wish I could say that there is a clearly defined path to seamlessly crossing the borders between the corporate or government and the social sector, or finding what you’re most suited to, but, alas, there’s not. However, the good news is today there are more opportunities than ever before.

To start, it’s important to understand what purpose means to you because it is unique to every person. It’s built out of your own past, out of the things you believe in, and from values for which you are willing to sacrifice something.

As humans, we’re hardwired for purpose. It inspires us to think bigger, act faster and bring other like-minded individuals along for the ride. 

Doing something that provides a deep sense of purpose that reflects your interest and personality, begins with self-understanding. Clarifying your thoughts on where your priorities lie can help you understand what your meaningful work can look like. If you take the first opportunity that presents itself, it might be more frustrating than fulfilling, which is what happened to me. 

I put my toe in the non-profit water back in 2002 when I saw a story about a family living out of their car because the father lost his job and couldn’t afford the mortgage. The social system let them down and they were getting their meals from a food van. I was moved to help so I called the couple who ran the food van and started to volunteer. This immersion enabled me to better understand human frailty and deepened my understanding of the complexities of homelessness, but it was a privately-run service and despite a great amount of goodwill, the organisation had little regard for governance, resulting in a revolving door of well-meaning volunteers and donors.

It was a sobering start to my career in philanthropy and social justice. I could have walked away putting the experience in the “too hard basket”, however after a lot of self-reflection, it highlighted the type of career I wanted and who I am in closer alignment. It also helped me to address my fears -  including money versus meaning - that were holding me back. 

Roman Krznaric, author of How to Find Meaningful Work, says the lack of any clear positive relationship between rising income and rising happiness is one of the most powerful findings of modern social science. As Krznaric says, you can be a high achiever or a wide achiever. I chose the latter and have never looked back.

So, where to start? How do you make the right decision? I’d suggest you do some preliminary research. Seek out people who have gone down the path, who can share war stories and the times when they felt fully alive. Speak to those outside your circles to gain different perspectives which can lead to further clarity.

If your next step still seems vague, dip your toe in the water and embrace experiential or ‘action-learning’, as I did. Contributing to social change and all its complexities, is not about painstaking planning, it’s about acting, reviewing and re-grouping. With each phase you gain greater confidence and grow as a person. You’re able to narrow down the options that best suit you and you open up to taking risks that are full of promise.

After my homelessness experience, I joined Social Ventures Australia (SVA), an organisation with commercial sensibilities and a pioneering model to address entrenched disadvantage. It was an energizing environment that exposed me to the power of expanding human potential for those living at the margins of society and those wanting to help. This gave me the confidence to start The Funding Network in 2013 - a new model of giving and capacity building for grassroots non-profits recently featured in a three-part series on ABC’s Compass program.  

But you don’t need to start a philanthropic or non-profit organisation to acquire more meaning in your life. Working with purpose might be realized through a number of avenues. You can take a portfolio approach and include a community contribution through mentoring a social entrepreneur. You can sit on a non-profit board, or help develop more sustainable practices within your organisation as an ‘intrapreneur’.

The wonderful thing is building purpose and fulfilment into your life is truly possible if you liberate yourself from your fears and take that first important step. When you open yourself up to the myriad of opportunities and find the one that fits, something profound will enter your life.


About the Author

Prior to establishing Ideology Group, Lisa was co-founder and CEO of The Funding Network. In 2017, she was named ‘Third Sector CEO of the Year’, and was included in Pro-Bono Australia’s ‘Impact 25’ list of people who have had  significant influence on the for-purpose sector. She’s a Board Director of the Stella Prize, and sits on Australian Futures Project Advisory Board and Swinburne University’s Social Innovation Research Institute Advisory Committee. Lisa is a regular speaker, panellist and facilitator on the power of community contribution and purpose.


Lisa Cotton