Growing across the world; and expanding across life stages.

The idea

In July 1988, Common Purpose founder Julia Middleton was working at the Industrial Society. While there, she came across details of an American community leadership programme which took a different approach to leadership development. Rather than focusing on management within teams, the US programme brought together leaders from different sectors and backgrounds, so that they would learn about their city and work better together.

Determined to take this idea and develop it for the UK, Julia resigned the very next day, and set about raising the initial funding for what became Common Purpose.

From the outset, she was insistent on maintaining Common Purpose as independent and non-aligned to any one funding organization, and this determination dictated approaches to a wide range of potential funders, right across the public and private sectors.

Financial Times, 1990

“Common Purpose is a newly launched project as yet little known or understood in Britain: but it could soon become a familiar feature of community life in cities up and down the country.”

The launch

Within six months, she had secured initial funding from four government departments (The Home Office, Department of the Environment, Department of Employment and Department of Trade and Industry), plus Action for Cities, Coopers & Lybrand Deloitte (now PwC), The Body Shop, Grand Metropolitan Plc (now Diageo), British Petroleum Company plc, British Telecom, National Westminster Bank and Wellcome Foundation.

Having enlisted Anita Roddick of the Body Shop as the first Chair, Common Purpose launched in the autumn of 1989, with two programmes: in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Coventry. Over the next nine months, 32 senior leaders in each city from sectors as diverse as the arts, crime prevention, local government and financial services came together to gain a greater understanding of their city, a greater understanding of each other, and a shared commitment to working together to find creative solutions to the problems they encountered.

Anita Roddick: our first Chair

Colin Dodge, Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK, 1991

"I came into contact with problems I never dreamt existed and met people whose views and approaches to life were far different from any previous experiences. I started off sceptical and ended up better able to do my job."

Growing around the world

After these two pilot programmes, the demand for Common Purpose in UK cities mushroomed. By 1994, just four years later, we were delivering programmes for 1,200 leaders, in 31 different locations. And our alumni community had already grown to more than 3,000 people.

To meet the growing demand for Common Purpose in other countries, we also started to deliver programmes in cities outside the UK. Between 1996 and 2006, we worked in Ireland, Sweden, Germany South Africa and the Netherlands. A few years later, we added Hong Kong, India, Turkey, Libya, France and Ghana.

Next came programmes that connected leaders from different countries to tackle global problems. In 2010, we launched the first of our global programmes - Dishaa - to foster understanding and engagement between leaders from India and the UK. Other programmes that connected leaders within a global context quickly followed. In 2012, we launched CSCLeaders, which brought together senior leaders from around the Commonwealth.

Telegraph Business Club video on our growth

Professor Dr. Bodo Dencker, Volkswagen AG, Germany, 1996

"I was instantly impressed by the simplicity and the power of the Common Purpose idea. Shared understanding is the only way to solve problems in large organisations and in the cities where they operate"

Different programmes for different life stages

Initially, our programmes were only aimed at senior leaders: established decision-makers who were well positioned to carry out positive change in their organizations and cities. But it soon became apparent that Common Purpose programmes could be relevant at other life stages too.

We realised that our flagship programme for senior leaders was just as valuable for rising leaders: early-career individuals who needed to develop a broader perspective in order to become more effective and successful as they rose through the ranks towards senior management responsibility. So we created Meridian to continue our work with senior leaders and Navigator, a similar programme, for rising leaders.

In 1995, we ran our first programme for young people: Your Turn. Aimed at 14-16 year olds, it enabled young people to understand the issues in their city better, so that they had the knowledge and the inspiration to contribute to their communities both at school and afterwards.

In 2004, we expanded our work with school-age participants to students at university. We saw that universities often act as communities within communities – where students never fully get to grips with the city in which they live and study. Our Frontrunner programme (then called YourTurn Residential) has since seen thousands of students gain a better understanding of leadership and their cities.

In 2011, we extended this work to include students with disabilities with the launch of our Frontrunner for Disabled Students programme. So far, nearly 100 universities across the UK have sent their students on the programme.

By 2012, we had seen the unique impact of our global programmes for leaders crossing boundaries. With four million students travelling to study (a number UNESCO predicts will double by 2020), we felt there was an excellent opportunity to get students from different cultures to learn from each other.

So, working closely with the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, we created Global Leader Experiences: four-day programmes to give students the skills and experience they will need to be able to lead in an increasingly global landscape. We aim to run this programme in 50 cities around the world.

Professor Rob Moore, Deputy Vice-Chancellor, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, 2013

"We provide an excellent education for our students but it is challenging to prepare them fully for life beyond the university. Common Purpose gave our students incredible exposure to the challenges of broader society, and helped our students to begin learning from their international peers on campus."

Customized programmes

Alongside our open programmes, we have always been happy to customize programmes for the private, public and not-for-profit sectors, and across different age groups.

We have created and run tailored Common Purpose programmes for the American Express Foundation, Tata Steel, DP World and the National Health Service (NHS), among many others.

Robert Care, Chair, Common Purpose Charitable Trust, 2015

"Common Purpose develops leaders’ ability to work together across boundaries and borders, which helps people, organisations and cities to succeed."


Common Purpose programmes now cater for leaders of all ages in more than 100 cities across six continents. This year 4,000 participants will join our alumni community, which has now grown to more than 50,000. We continue to grow and we are always looking to expand both our programmes and our horizons.

We celebrate 25 years of Common Purpose in the UK

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