All organizations — be they for-profit or not-for-profit — have a mission. It may be to create the coolest technology, serve the best pizza or eliminate world hunger. Not all organizations, however, are mission-driven. Other priorities, like making a profit or providing shareholder value, take precedent.

Associations, nonprofits and NGOs are unique in this respect: They are their mission. It is their reason for being. Without it, they are just another group of people with a few things in common.

Most employees want to work in an association because they identify in some way with its mission. It may not be a particular cause or constituency that motivates them. Their affiliation may be more nebulous, such as a desire to give back, to “do good,” to serve or to make a positive contribution to their community, profession or industry. Whether they are conscious of it or not, they are attracted to working for a mission-driven organization.

Association managers should keep this in mind at all times (and not just when rationalizing salaries or cutbacks), for it links directly to staff productivity and focus. Staff will instinctively question duties, tasks or changes that they perceive to be “off-mission.” By the same token, staff will embrace and put energy behind initiatives they feel will help further the mission.

It stands to reason, then, that associations and nonprofits benefit by strengthening staff commitment to the mission. Some organizations do this by involving staff in mission-related activities, like volunteering for community service projects or mentoring students, and some by holding special staff events that celebrate accomplishments that have furthered the mission. Another common tactic is to brand the work environment with images and/or slogans that remind employees of whom they are serving and the values that underlie the mission.

Branding can be a powerful means of instilling and enhancing commitment to the mission, especially when reinforced by stories of how the organization has made a difference in the lives of members or constituents by carrying out its mission. For branding to be truly effective, however, it needs employee engagement. When management decides to brand the work space and begins to make changes to employees’ work areas without their involvement, it can have the opposite effect of alienating staff. The branding will feel imposed upon rather than emerging from the work environment.

Environmental psychologists and others who study how people are affected by the spaces they interact with have noted that individuals develop emotional and symbolic relationships with places they frequent. This “sense of place” can have a profound impact on how the individual performs in that space and the degree to which they are willing to invest their time and energy to the activities that take place in that space.

One researcher has discerned three levels of “sense of place”: belonging, attachment and commitment. Belonging is a sense of identification with the space, such as when the employee says to a family member, friend or colleague, “This is where I work.” Attachment involves a stronger emotional tie to the space, such as when an employee feels a strong sense of loyalty to the organization or pride in being part of the organization.

Commitment produces a more active engagement with the space. The individual wants to contribute to the organization and is concerned for its welfare. At the highest level, the individual will even willingly sacrifice his or her time or financial interests to benefit the organization.

The important thing about sense of place is that it does not develop simply as a response to a space. Rather, it is transactional. Sense of place is created by the combination of the setting and what the person brings to it. Thus, it is crucial when branding a space to involve employees in the process, to have them select images, slogans and the like to which they have an emotional attachment.

Likewise, the branding effort should not prohibit employees from personalizing their own workspaces or departments. They need to merge their personal objects and symbols with those of the brand in order to fully identify with the mission, members or constituents. This will help to develop their sense of attachment to their work environment and to personalize their commitment to the organization’s mission.