Features: June 6th, 2003

Motivating Public Workers: Lessons from Nonprofit Management

Arthur C. Brooks

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

At present, nonprofit management as an academic discipline is generally consigned to the role of a specialization within traditional public administration degree programs. The implication of this is that public management is a more mature and developed field, and especially well positioned to inform nonprofit management. However, close scrutiny of both chronic government problems and common nonprofit solutions leads one to see that nonprofits can actually teach the public sector some important lessons.

An illustrative example of this is in the area of employee motivation, a major challenge in government. Harvard University Professor Robert D. Behn characterizes a common public-sector dilemma with the following lament: “How can you motivate anyone in the public sector? Everyone is protected by civil service rules. We can’t fire anyone. We can’t reward anyone. How can they expect us to get anything done?”

In part, this is what social scientists call a “principal-agent” problem. Motivation requires knowledge of performance: a manager motivates employees either by rewarding excellent work or penalizing that which is substandard. Yet worker performance is difficult to monitor, creating incentives to shirk responsibilities. And uncontrolled performance means uncontrolled morale, leading to exit by the cream of the workforce.

The importance of non-financial benefits

But motivation goes beyond simple control of the workforce. It also involves inspiration to achieve “public purpose” with vigor. Understanding this involves attention to the personal benefit calculation of public-sector employees. Given the relatively low salaries in many government jobs, a significant portion of the compensation is certainly non financial, as many authors in public management have noted. The core issue can be explained as follows. An employee in any sector earns compensation in money wages, fringe benefits, and non-pecuniary compensation (such as job satisfaction, public-spiritedness, experience, career enhancement, and a host of other possible intangible benefits). If a potential employee chooses to work for government in spite of higher-paying alternatives in the private sector, it must logically be that non-money benefits are higher in government work for this employee. The lesson here is that under constrained financial resources–where wages are effectively fixed at a low level–the handle on worker motivation can be found in these non-financial benefits.

Nonprofit administrators deal with the most extreme form of this problem. Volunteer workforces are prevalent in the third sector, representing the case in which all compensation is non financial. Thus, an understanding of volunteer compensation is equivalent to understanding the power of non-pecuniary benefits in isolation. As such, nonprofit research is well-placed to assist public management on this subject.

What motivates someone to volunteer? In reviewing the literature, Boston College sociologist David Horton Smith has identified five basic categories of variables that lead to participation in nonprofit activities: demographic characteristics, geographic region, personality, the inherent propensity to participate in voluntary associations, attitudes toward the group of interest, and the interpersonal links involved in giving and volunteering. Obviously, most of the benefits in these categories cannot be manipulated by managers. However, the nonprofit management literature has isolated several main non-money benefits that are major motivators to volunteers, and which nonprofit managers can influence to one extent or another. These benefits include the perceived social meaningfulness of an activity; the skills-enhancing ability of a volunteer opportunity; the role of an opportunity as a substitute for market work; and a positive organizational culture.

Motivating forces for volunteers track fairly closely with those found among satisfied government employees: a sense of public service, skills acquisition, and a workplace environment that features more security and less stress than in the private sector (to name just three that researchers commonly find). As such, public HR managers might look to the nonprofit sector for designing retention, recruitment, and work-quality appeals that exploit non money benefits.

The marketing of volunteer benefits is evident and easy-to-find in practice throughout the nonprofit sector. To take one random example, Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society advertises that the reasons people volunteer are as varied as the volunteers themselves. They paraphrase some of the most popular reasons thus:

    • To meet people who enjoy gardening as much as I do
    • To get out in the fresh air in beautiful surroundings
    • To broaden my horticultural knowledge/horizons
    • To give something back
    • To create something for future generations to enjoy
    • To do more than my own garden/lack of garden permits
    • To learn from experts

The principal non pecuniary benefits discussed above are abundantly evident in this pitch to potential volunteers.

Benefits need to be codified

Nonprofits that are most successful in maintaining high-quality volunteer forces are those that give these types of benefits more than lip service. They design their programs in ways that deliver them to high-quality volunteers in a cost-effective manner. The lesson from this for public managers is that if non money benefits to government workers are indeed an important currency of employment, managers need to codify and trade on them.

Beyond simple advertising for purposes of recruitment, some benefits might even be sufficiently within the control of managers to distribute on the basis of merit. For example, productive civil servants who are particularly interested in skills acquisition might be rewarded with internships in other departments or agencies. Similarly, good workers who prefer the public-sector lifestyle to the rigidity and long hours in the private sector might receive merit bonuses in the form of, say, flex-time or telecommuting privileges.

So what can we conclude from this:

  • Clearly, challenges in motivating public-sector employees are not precisely the same as those in recruiting and retaining volunteers. In summary, however, we can see that the special circumstances of many nonprofits puts them in a unique position to inform public HR managers and that their experience makes the case for identifying non-pecuniary motivations for government employment.
  • That by understanding and (where possible) manipulating the relative value of different non-money benefits, managers can enhance the public sector workplace without necessarily increasing pay or tangible fringes; and that
  • Marketing the most important intangible benefits of employment will aid in recruiting, retention, and employee motivation.

Arthur C. Brooks is an Associate Professor of Public Administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, USA. He teaches courses on nonprofit management, and performs research on philanthropy and cultural policy.

Email: acbrooks@maxwell.syr.edu