Here’s an interesting fact: Microsoft, one of the largest software makers and most valuable companies in the world, introduced its digital multimedia encyclopedia Encarta in 1993. It fizzled in 2009. Wikipedia, a largely volunteer-based organization, introduced its web-based free-content encyclopedia in 2001. Today, it is the biggest and possibly best multi-lingual encyclopedia in the world.
This is a wonderful example of just how powerful volunteers can be, when they are motivated. The problem is, most of us in the nonprofit world do not know how to motivate our volunteers—specifically boards of directors—very well.
The research that social scientists are doing on motivation is fascinating. They are finding that most of us who “manage” people do so incorrectly. We use some variance of the stick-and-carrot technique. For example, if I work on the assembly line for a widget company, my boss probably motivates me to make more widgets with a high-value incentive like money. Social scientists have found that a high-value incentive works great for widget makers. But here’s the fascinating part: it doesn’t work so well if I’m a director for the widget company.
In experiment after experiment and across several cultures, researchers found that they could successfully incentivize their experiment participants doing low-cognitive tasks (assembling widgets) with money, but once the participants were asked to do a high-cognitive task like solving complex puzzles, their productivity went down with high-value incentives.
What motivates people who are doing complex cognitive tasks? Career analyst Dan Pink identifies three intrinsic motivations: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy is being self-directed. Mastery is learning to become great at something. Purpose is working on something larger than ourselves. This explains why the volunteers at Wikipedia outperformed the staff at Microsoft; they worked at their own pace on something that they loved for the purpose of helping others.
What Motivates Volunteers?
These findings are particularly relevant to us. We work with hundreds of volunteers across the country on dozens of projects that help thousands of beneficiaries every year. One element to our success is motivating the members of our campaign committees, who are typically volunteers, to do something that people generally do not enjoy—raising money. Here are the questions we ask ourselves about motivation:
- Autonomy: Can we agree upon expectations or processes with our volunteers that allow them to work within their comfort zones?
- Mastery: Can we provide the training and guidance to help our campaign volunteers master the processes we have developed?
- Purpose: Can we get our volunteers to buy into the campaign vision?
And when we answer “yes” to these questions, our clients hit their fundraising goals. We have found these techniques to work for both volunteers and staff because everyone is seeking intrinsic value, even though they may not know it. We suggest you adjust your management paradigm to include these intrinsic motivations for cognitive tasks and see for yourself.
Kevin Wallace is president of CampaignCounsel.org, specializing in capital campaign planning and management. Kevin has 20 years of fundraising experience, conducting more than 70 campaign planning studies and capital campaigns around the country that have raised more than $175 million. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.campaigncounsel.org.