Aaron Hurst, Author of “The Purpose Economy” Joins Denver Frederick

The following is a conversation between Aaron Hurst, CEO of Imperative, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer.


Aaron Hurst


Denver: One of the things we discuss on The Business of Giving, as much as anything else I suspect, is the corporate culture of nonprofit organizations and social good businesses. That is why I’m so delighted to have with us this evening, Aaron Hurst, one of my favorite thinkers on the topic and the pioneer of purpose-driven work. Aaron launched the pro bono service market by founding the Taproot Foundation in 2001, authored the best-selling book The Purpose Economy several years back, and is now the CEO of Imperative, a technology platform helping people to discover purpose in their work. Good evening, Aaron and welcome to The Business of Giving!

Aaron: Thrilled to be here with you.

Denver: I have always encountered people who are purpose-driven in their work and those who are simply not, but it sure does seem like we’re talking about it a lot more frequently these days than we have in the past, perhaps in large part because of you and your work. When did this subject first grab you, Aaron?

Aaron: I’ve been interested in work and how do we make work more meaningful since I was probably in high school. My grandfather was the original author of the blueprint for the Peace Corps, and a lot of that was really about the same idea of nobility of work and how work can be transformational. When I went to the University of Michigan, it was really what I studied, and really saw that service and work are all interconnected, and that we had lost our sense of the nobility of work in the American culture. I really have seen it as my journey to figure out: how do we bring that nobility back, because work is powerful; it’s so transformational, and it’s so much of what provides value in our lives.

Denver: It kind of got perverted along the way, didn’t it?

Aaron: Yes, went a little bit off track.

Denver: So much of your current work was informed by the venture you started some 16 years ago, the Taproot Foundation, which really continues to have a profound impact on the entire nonprofit sector, not to mention all the individual people who are engaged. How did that idea work?

Aaron: The Taproot Foundation was a really simple idea. I think good ideas tend to be simple with the right timing, which is the good luck part. But the basic idea is nonprofits need marketing, technology, HR, finance just like big companies do, but they’re typically priced out of the market; they’re not able to afford those services. So the idea was: how could we create a giant consulting firm where all the labor was pro bono and not paid work?  And how could we recruit business professionals– who are inherently generous– to donate not just their time, not just their money but their skills to help provide these services?  And over the course of a dozen years, we worked there. We went from becoming the small little nonprofit to the largest nonprofit consulting firm in the world, to then realizing that was kind of a fool’s destination because we were still only serving a tiny percentage of the market. We really switched the whole strategy to focus instead on: How do we create a whole marketplace for pro bono services?

By the time I left, it was about a $15 billion a year market in the US, with affiliates in 30 countries. It was amazing to see– from China to Costa Rica– this sort of business attitude around doing good using your skills is universal. It’s not just an American thing.

Denver: And when you look at purpose and work, what were some of the insights you were able to take away after having done that for a dozen of years or so?

Aaron: It took a while. It took me about 5 years to figure out because you have to manage teams, and you can’t pay them; you can’t promote people. You’ve really got to use intrinsic motivation. You can’t use extrinsic motivation. That’s why I always say, “You’re not truly an outstanding manager until you can manage volunteers.” That’s the true test of whether or not someone’s an effective leader and an effective manager. 

Denver: That’s a great point.

Aaron: I think I learned a ton about the attitudes that people bring to their work. I learned a lot about what the diversity is of things that motivate people, and not everyone gets purpose from the same things. But I learned most importantly– no surprise to you, given your work– people are inherently generous; people inherently want work to be meaningful, but we just need to create more avenues for that.  And we need to help create a narrative that supports it.