Motivating Alumni: Reflections from Dan Ariely's #NetTalks Webinar

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Dan Ariely recently led a webinar about motivating alumni to stay engaged in a network. His presentation was part of the #NetTalks: Alumni Engagement Webinar Series, designed to support a broader community understanding of effective alumni networks and catalyze a community of practice for professionals working with Jewish alumni. It is a partnership between the Schusterman Philanthropic Network and Jim Joseph Foundation. For more information and to register for the next webinar, click here.

Alina Shkonikov is Director of Content and Programs for PresenTense and previously served as the European Programs Director. For five years she has worked in the field of new media as New Media Manager, Public Relations and Client Manager and Web Content Writer for various organizations. Alina is also an alumni of the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship program.

Most NGO’s rely on the support of their community, volunteers and alumni alike, for various jobs including professional support, PR and fundraising. Yet it seems that even in the most engaged communities the question of how to motivate volunteers arises again and again.

In his #NetTalks Alumni Engagement Webinar, Dan Ariely tried to answer that question with examples from different lessons on human motivation. Here are some of the main takeaways:

Is it effective to give bonuses as a way to motivate employees?

Mr. Ariely's research on employees of a large company shows the difference between three types of motivation: financial motivation (giving employees bonuses on Mondays), public acknowledgment (pizza sent to the employee’s home) and private acknowledgment (text sent from the boss).

Results show that all types of motivation yield the same results at the time they are received, yet when looking further into the numbers, the research shows that employees who got money on Monday worked less on Tuesday. Thus we see that a financial incentive can be problematic in the long run and non-financial incentives, at times, can lead to the same or even better results.

The psychological explanation, Mr. Ariely suggests, is based on the idea of “market norm” and “social norm.” When you give financial incentives you create the norm that for good work you have to be rewarded, which means that a lack of a reward can lead to worst results.

Is it a good idea to pay volunteers?

Volunteers dedicate their time working for a cause they believe in for free; yet giving volunteers a small financial incentive creates a shift in paradigm. They are now paid for their time much less then they usually charge and so they will be reluctant to do the task at hand (the same task they were wiling to do for free).

Who is most affected by different incentives?

An experiment that was done using the employees of a hotel call center showed interesting results. Every week the same people were picked as the top 20 employees and those people received a reward. In an attempt to understand this pattern of behavior, Mr. Ariely’s team got permission from the call center manager to pick the top 20 employees at random. Results showed the actual top 20 stayed at the top even with no reward yet the people usually on the bottom of the performance curve actually did better when rewarded. This finding can be easily explained if we think of this notion in terms of singing talent: a good singer can’t sing badly even if the reward for singing well was taken away.

Is it possible to de-motivate people?

While thinking of the right motivation technique is very important, it seems that avoiding de-motivation is just as important. Mr. Ariely's research shows how adding value or subtracting value from basic tasks affects people’s behavior. In one experiment people were asked to build Lego sets; one group would get less and less money for their project and another group had every set demolished after it was built. The results showed that in the Sisyphean condition, even people who loved building Legos got discouraged and de-motivated over time and their performance decreased.

While most of us don’t build Legos for a living, many of us employ or engage volunteers who can become de-motivated by us. We must remember this next time volunteers complete work on a project that for some reason or another won't move forward. We can ignore the work and move on or we can present the results and acknowledge the group's work anyway.

When working with volunteers (alumni included) it is crucial to understand what motivates them to commit to their cause. Check and re-check that volunteers have the opportunity to respond to the most effective means of motivation. When you do want to reward your volunteers, think of what would be the best value for your money–an example of a great reward could be donating money in a volunteer's name to charity (the micro-financing site Kiva allows for such a system). The amount of money can be minimal but the impact maximal.

For more information on the #NetTalks Alumni Engagement Webinar Series and to register for the next webinar, click here!