The Key to Motivating Volunteers—A Gold Star
Many of our conversations with clients revolve around motivating volunteers. Getting them to donate, fundraise and perform the multitude of tasks that allow the nonprofit to fulfill its mission. The psychology of motivation is well-documented, but some of the findings can seem counterintuitive. Understanding the way humans are motivated can be the difference between a nonprofit increasing revenue year over year and winding up in the ditch.
The research that can help us understand the mechanics of motivation comes out of the for-profit sector. According to a 2013 Gallup study of 230,000 full-time and part-time workers in 142 countries, only 13% of people feel engaged and fulfilled by their jobs. Put another way, 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. They keep showing up to make money, even though for them, work is more a source of frustration than fulfillment.
Psychologists would say that money provides the extrinsic motivation needed to keep employees coming back to work day after day. Their reasons for working are external; they perform their jobs to get something—a salary.
So how does this work for and against nonprofits? If people work to get money, what happens when you give volunteers gift cards, which are basically the same as money? These volunteers may conclude, unconsciously, that they took part to obtain the gift card, rather than because the cause represented something they believe in.
In his book, “Why We Work,” Swarthmore University psychologist Barry Schwartz documents the way attitudes change for the worse when financial incentives are introduced.
Schwartz found that employees are actually demotivated once they are given a financial incentive for performing desired behaviors at work. The financial incentive changed an employee’s motivation for doing a good job. Instead of performing well for the satisfaction it provided, the employee moved to doing a good job only when a financial incentive was provided. He concludes, “Adding financial incentives to situations in which people are motivated to work hard and well without them seems to undermine rather than enhance the motives people already have.”
If cash or cash equivalents can make an employee less inclined to perform well, imagine what financial incentives can do to the attitude of a nonprofit volunteer. Employees and volunteers are motivated in exactly the same way. Both can be either extrinsically or intrinsically motivated.
In the past, it appeared that volunteers behaved differently from employees. But in fact, they were not behaving differently. We did not take into account their “personal hygiene” needs—having enough money for food, shelter and care of loved ones. For employees, we know that intrinsic motivation works best only after personal hygiene needs are met. Volunteers, almost by definition, have their personal hygiene needs met, which gives them the time and money to be able to volunteer.
Research tells us that people actually value recognition more than money when given the choice. Harvard Business School professor Ian Larkin studied salespeople at a large computer software company to separate the impact of recognition from the increased money that typically accompanies it. This software firm acknowledged individuals who ended the year in the top 10 percent of sales with membership in a President’s Club. Aside from the recognition that membership bestows, this distinction has no significant, tangible benefits. Instead, the names of the winners were shared in an email from the chief executive officer to all employees. A gold star was put on their business cards and stationery. Finally, all the winners took a three-day trip, valued at $2,000, together to an island resort.
At the end of the year, things get interesting. Salespeople close to the 10 percent level heading into the last quarter faced a choice. They could complete their deals in the current year, which would dramatically increase their chances of getting into the President’s Club. But because of the bonus structure, this would cost them a lot of money in commissions. Those people who weren’t close to getting into the President’s Club deferred sales to the next year. But salespeople close to getting the gold star had to decide whether to finish up the sales in the current quarter and get the recognition or move the sales into the next year and make more money.
What happened? More than two-thirds, 68 percent, chose to take the immediate sales to ensure that they would get into the President’s Club. They gave up, on average, about $27,000 in future commissions. Typically, the salespeople earned about $150,000 annually. They were willing to trade 20 percent of their salary for the privilege of being recognized as part of the high-status group. When asked about their decision, many thought that being recognized in this way was the right thing to do. One said, “I paid $20,000 for that gold star. And it was worth it.”
For nonprofits, switching your volunteer’s mental stance to one that is extrinsically motivated will suggest to them (perhaps unconsciously) that they volunteer to get the financial incentive. Keeping them intrinsically motivated by using recognition with little or no monetary value reinforces their idea that they volunteer because they want to do so. And therein lies the key to keep them coming back.
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.