Daniel Pink and The Hunger Study

I spend a great deal of time thinking about what motivates people to do things.  Since I supervise people (seven of them at the moment), I find it helpful to understand what drives them to the excellence I see all of the time here at the food bank.  Also, people in nonprofits really need to understand motivation because the willingness of our donors to give their time, talent, food and money literally keeps the food bank’s lights on and our doors open.  If people aren’t motivated to give generously, we literally can’t function.

I read a surprising, eclectic mix of books to try to get a handle on motivation.  I have read about climbing Mt. Everest, about winning repeatedly in the Olympics, about being adrift in a dingy on the ocean, about being the first person to explore a new continent, about jumping out of airplanes, about participating in high risk medical experiments and many other things that have never and will never be part of my real life.  For me it all finally came together in a coherent theory when I read Daniel Pink’s book Drive.

According to Pink, all humans are motivated by three things:  Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.  I couldn’t agree more.

Pink proposes that what makes human beings perform beyond the ordinary is not external reward or punishment.  In fact, he believes that what we typically regard as motivating—things like pay increases or regard for authority or fear of punishment—actually may have a demotivating effect.  He believes that all humans are driven by the desire to work on their own (autonomy) to get better and better at doing things (mastery) in service to something greater than ourselves (purpose).   And Pink believes that true excellence can only come from a combination of all three elements occurring at the same time.

Without realizing we were doing so, we recently proved Pink’s point in a real life activity.  As part of the quadrennial national study of hunger called Hunger in America 2014, we needed to motivate more than 400 of our partner agencies to complete a very lengthy online survey during the hectic holiday season.  Our goal was 95 percent participation, and anything less than that was not acceptable to us.  This hunger study, done only every four years, forms the basis for everything we do and say about hunger in our state, and it is critically important for us to have complete and accurate information from every part of our state.

The difficulties were many:  Dial up or nonexistent internet connections, lack of technical ability, the time of year, the fact that most potential respondents were volunteers who worked for other organizations, and the sheer numbers and geographic disparity of the agencies.  Early on we offered some very modest financial incentives, and after a few weeks the results were less than stellar (about 30 percent).  We then began to place personal phone calls to the agencies, and we talked to them about the role of the study in giving a voice to hungry people and in joining New Mexico’s voice to the ones being heard all across the country.  We acknowledged to them that the survey was technically difficult, and we offered help if needed.  We let them know that their peers were successfully completing the survey.  Within a relatively short period of time, we had reached our 95 percent participation rate, and we finished in the top 10 percent of food banks in the United States.

Why?  We believe it is because we allowed the agencies to tap into the magic that only happens when people are motivated by autonomy (filling out the survey on their own), mastery (figuring out something challenging), and purpose (giving voice to the voiceless as part of a nationwide effort).  When we were all done, we called every single one of the 400 participants to thank them for helping out.  And hungry people will thank them for many, many years to come.

Melody Wattenbarger is President and CEO of Roadrunner Food Bank.

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