Understand What Your Volunteers Need From Your Nonprofit
Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Just about everybody got a dose of Maslow somewhere along the line, either in high school social studies class, or college psychology or sociology courses. And if it somehow slipped by you in school, you may have read about it in management or productivity books. Even books on project management talk about it.
Starting with the lower-level needs and moving to the higher-level needs, the hierarchy is:
- Basic physical needs: food, clothing, shelter
- Security: physical welfare and security of belongings
- Social: sense of belonging, acceptance, friendship
- Self-esteem: accomplishment, respect for self, capability
- Self-actualization: performing at your peak potential
Maslow’s model is often depicted as a pyramid. Once someone fulfills the needs at a lower level, they are motivated by those at the next higher level.
The hierarchy has been around for a long time. It’s familiar, comfortable—like an old shoe. Which made it kind of surprising when The New York Times columnist Arthur Brooks did a major takedown of Maslow’s Hierarchy in an editorial yesterday.
Brooks scores some good points in his critique. His major point is that Maslow’s theory is overly focused on the development of the self, absent a social context. He uses marriage as an example. Maslow’s school of thought believes that marriage is an arrangement where two people help the other to develop and grow. Spouses are kinds of coaches who help their partner become the best they can be.
Brooks is unconvinced. He says, “It’s not just in marriage, but in everything, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has always pointed toward a chilly, unsatisfying version of self-fulfillment.” In other words, Maslow is a guru for the “me-generation.”
Nonprofit professionals are in the needs-fulfillment business for our volunteers. Getting people to engage with our missions depends on understanding how working on our behalf meets their needs.
Since Maslow first published the hierarchy in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” we have learned a lot about what motivates people to rally to our causes.
Daniel Pink’s “trifecta of motivation,” popularized in his book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” summarizes psychologists’ current thinking on motivation. The three elements of his trifecta are autonomy, mastery and purpose. The key to cultivating high performance and satisfaction in volunteers is understanding the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.
What is the best way to motivate your constituents? Psychologist Edward Deci investigated motivation and found that money, materials and other extrinsic forces do not motivate people to perform. He found that in order to succeed, motivation must come from within. Deci’s research demonstrated that people’s intrinsic needs for competence, autonomy and purpose (Pink’s trifecta) predicted their performance.
In his book, “Why We Work,” Swarthmore University psychologist Barry Schwartz cites research across many settings that examines the factors that lead to people experiencing satisfaction. Schwartz conducts interviews in hospitals and hair salons, auto plants and boardrooms, talking to people in all walks of life, chronicling the trends and patterns that lead to happiness. He proves that the root of what drives people to do good work can rarely be incentivized, and that the cause of bad work is often an attempt to do just that.
Brooks concludes The New York Times piece by saying, “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs too easily devolves into self-absorption. It’s time to put it away.”
Whether you agree or disagree with Maslow, here’s something really interesting: According to Stephen Covey and Rebecca Merrill in their book, “First Things First,” Maslow revised his hierarchy later in life.
He realized that the highest need is not self-actualization, but self-transcendence—namely, living for a purpose higher than self. Before his death, Maslow recognized that a real sense of fulfillment does not come from seeking your own welfare, but from living and doing things for a purpose beyond yourself. That’s the opportunity nonprofits offer to every volunteer, every day.
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.