Aim To identify what motivates individuals to engage in a nursing career. Background Recruitment and retention of nurses is a worldwide concern that is associated with several compounding factors, primarily the high attrition of its new graduates and an ageing workforce. Given these factors, it is necessary to understand why individuals choose to nurse, what keeps them engaged in nursing, and in what ways healthcare systems can support career development and retention. Method This paper presents initial interview data from a longitudinal multi method study with 29 undergraduate student nurses, 25 registered nurses (RNs), six Nurse Unit Managers (NUMs) and four Directors of Nursing (DoNs) from four hospitals across a healthcare organization in Australia. Results Thematic analysis yielded four key themes that were common to all participants: (1) a desire to help, (2) caring, (3) sense of achievement and (4) self-validation. Conclusions These themes represented individuals' motivation to enter nursing and sustain them in their careers as either nurses or managers. Implications for nursing management Managers need to be cognisant of nurses' underlying values and motivators in addressing recruitment and retention issues. Strategies need to be considered at both unit and organizational levels to ensure that the 'desire to care' does not become lost.