The Zen Hospice’s Purpose Project.

Two months ago, I came with a group of US financial executives for an immersive educational journey in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our objective was to find external inspiration in a variety of tech and non-tech companies on how to innovate strategically. Our main finding, however, was not about productivity optimization or workforce development; instead, it was that a clear business purpose can help you innovate, as long as that purpose is human enough. 

We were fortunate enough to meet George Kellar, executive director of the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco. A former software engineer, this Great Mind showed us around the beautiful Victorian mansion located in a quiet neighbourhood where his residents – note, not ‘patients’ – live out their remaining days. 

According to Kellar, there are over 43 million unpaid caregivers in the US today who struggle with a healthcare system designed around curing, not caring. Given this focus – contradictory in a hospice – imbuing caregivers with their own sense of purpose is a complex challenge. As well as the core role of serving the terminally ill, Kellar spoke of the need to empower those who give the care: “We serve caregivers by helping them build resilience and self-care skills and habits,” he revealed.  This core idea drove them to make a tough call: asking visitors to go home after 9pm to ensure family and friends, as part of the caring system, look after themselves.

This clarity of the caregiver’s role is enabled by core beliefs that guide the human-centred purpose of the hospice. Using ancient principles, Kellar has helped build purpose among his team. “We base our approach on three principles that emanate from Zen Buddhism: self-awareness – being present; non-judgment; and acknowledgment of suffering,” said Kellar.

This Buddist triptych offers guidance on behaviours, adding clarity to the otherwise fuzzy picture that a simple purpose statement might deliver. Yet the success of Zen Hospice Project’s purpose project goes beyond internal accomplishment. It has enabled Kellar’s team to invent new business models. Because of its focus on holistic caregiving, the hospice now offers educational programmes to export its unique caring approach to caregivers and healthcare providers around the US. “Our focus on a human-centred approach …makes us uniquely positioned to teach emotional skills to all caregivers – whether professional, family or volunteer caregivers,” said Kellar. “So we imagined a way to meet this need and provide it to people beyond our four walls.”

A human-centred purpose is equally imperative in business. The good news from the Zen Hospice Project is that by tapping into basic human empathy we can more easily reimagine human experiences in a way that delivers greater value. Here are some lessons:

  • The ‘customer’ should be at the centre of your purpose – whether your customer is your staff, your clients, or both
  • Your product or your company is secondary to purpose development. They come in later – don’t start there
  • To do this, ask: “Who are we serving and why?” At its core, purpose is about service to others
  • See your customer in context. By building empathy, you’re more likely to see other opportunities to serve the customer, and maybe even other stakeholders
  • Look for hard trade-offs. If your purpose isn’t forcing tough choices, it’s not clear enough

Kellar’s story contains an important lesson: if we stick to what is quintessentially human, meaningful innovation is within reach.

— Michael Chavez is chief executive of Duke Corporate Education

— A version of this article originally appeared on and on the Dialogue Review website