Are Employees and Volunteers Motivated the Same Way?
Most people hate their jobs. Employees keep doing their jobs to get paychecks. Volunteers quit because the paychecks aren’t big enough or the pay is in the wrong currency.
According to a recent Gallup study of 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries, only 13 percent of people feel engaged and fulfilled by their jobs. In other words, nearly nine out of 10 adults spend half their waking lives doing things they would rather not be doing at places they would rather not be. It’s not rocket science to figure out what keeps them showing up—the paycheck—even though for them, work is more a source of frustration than fulfillment.
Otis Fulton, Turnkey’s consulting psychologist, looks under the hood for us: “Psychologists would say that money provides the extrinsic motivation needed to keep people coming back day after day. Their reasons for working are external; they perform their jobs to receive a corresponding incentive—their salary.”
Given this information, it would be easy to conclude that offering any kind of incentive will increase motivation. However, research tells us that, in fact, it is often better to offer no incentive at all to motivate performance. How can this be possible? When people are engaged in activities that they find to be meaningful and enjoyable, they experience intrinsic motivation to perform the task.
“Generally, intrinsic motivation is more powerful than extrinsic motivation,” Otis explained. “When people think that their behavior is motivated by external rewards, they develop the attitude that they are merely working because of the reward. However, when an incentive is small or nonexistent, people develop the attitude that they are performing that action because of a personal desire (i.e., they develop intrinsic motivation). Psychologists refer to this as the ‘less leads to more effect.’”
So, what I’m hearing is that, contrary to my own formerly held belief, employees and volunteers operate exactly the same way. Both can be either extrinsically or intrinsically motivated. Extrinsically motivated people perform actions because they want to acquire stuff or experiences; intrinsically motivated people perform actions because the actions are meaningful and enjoyable to them.
For the nonprofit, switching your volunteer’s mental stance to one that is extrinsically motivated—by offering them items that look like pay (airline tickets anyone?)—will cause them to believe subconsciously that they are volunteering in order to get the airline ticket. But, by keeping them intrinsically motivated by using recognition, along with little or no monetary value, you reinforce the idea that they are volunteering because it is meaningful to them.
For both employees and volunteers, extrinsic motivation results in people working banker’s hours. Intrinsic motivation results in people working nights and weekends in order to get things done.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.