Why Nonprofits Should Ban the Word ‘Incentive’
I recently did a webinar for a major nonprofit preparing to roll out next year’s walk campaign to its local chapters. There were about 200 chapter directors on the call. In the last year, the nonprofit has gone away from providing incentives of consumer products (blenders, scooters, etc.) and has opted for more modest gifts with its brand to recognize fundraisers and donors, per our recommendation. For the most part, the transition to less expensive items to recognize supporters has gone smoothly. Still, some questions about language persist. I got this question from a chapter director after the webinar, and here was my response.
Q: What is the difference between an incentive and incentivizing your volunteers, and a reward and rewarding your volunteers.
A: If there is one word that I would like to ban from the nonprofit world, it would be “incentive.” An incentive has traditionally been used to describe something that is given to people in exchange for performing some behavior. In this case, the behavior is raising funds for this organization. When people are offered things of significant or definable monetary value in exchange for doing something, it suggests to them that they are in it for what they can get, not because they believe in the mission of the organization.
The second word I would ban from nonprofit is “reward.” Here’s why: People often think that they can “incentivize” people by giving them “rewards.” In fact, the words “reward” and “incentive” are often used interchangeably. Psychology research shows that rewards only yield "temporary compliance." The person’s behavior might change for a period, but it will slide back. Think of a failed diet. Rewards only sustain behavior if you keep giving rewards.
As social scientist Alfie Kohn has said in the Harvard Business Review, rewards like money, (think: gift cards) vacations, raffle items, etc., do little in the way of changing people's attitudes. "Incentives ... do not alter the attitudes that underlie our behaviors," Kohn says. "They do not create an enduring commitment to any value or action. Rather, incentives merely—and temporarily—change what we do."
Rather, what we want to do is develop a sense of commitment in your supporters, a commitment to the organization’s mission. Commitment to the mission will result in sustained effort on your organization’s behalf. Committed people return year after year. They inspire and bring others into the fold.
Instead of thinking of how we can “incentivize” supporters, I prefer to ask what would “motivate” them. Organizational psychologists are clear about the factors that motivate people, what I call the big four motivators—recognition, personal growth, responsibility and challenging work. Think about why you sought out a leadership role in this year’s walk. I bet that you experience, or hope to experience, some aspects of the big four.
Another reason we don’t like using “incentive” or “reward,” is that these words imply gifts. Recognition, on the other hand, is about how we handle the touches we have with the constituent. Those touches manifest in many ways. Recognition is a process. Incentivizing/rewarding is a thing, and the “thing” can be a problem.
If we’re talking about gifts, the keyword is “modest.” Pretty much no one is involved with the walk to get an expensive gift. And if they are, research says they won’t stick around long. When we talk about recognizing people with gifts, the language that we use here at Turnkey is “recognition item,” rather than “gift.” The recognition item always bears the organization’s logo to remind supporters of what they did to receive the item.
It’s up to you as the leaders of the walk to put people in a position to be motivated by the other three: personal growth, responsibility and challenging work. And never underestimate how motivating it is for a volunteer to pick up the phone, call a supporter and just say, “Thank you. We see what you have been doing. It means a lot to people in our community.” Research has shown that recognition from a stranger can be every bit as motivating as recognition from a close friend or family member.
Here’s a shorthand for the above:
Incentive >> Incentive (banish from your vocabulary!)
Incentivize >> Motivate
Reward >> Recognition—modest gifts, communications (print, digital), ceremonies, human outreach
Rewarding >> Recognizing
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.