Menu Close

Research: The Power of a Humanized Mission



The March 31, 2013 issue of the NY Times Magazine featured an article on Adam Grant, Professor of Organizational Psychology at the Wharton School. Organizational psychology studies how to help employees get the most out of their job and how to design work so that people will enjoy it and want to do more.

One of Grant’s early studies focused on the University of Michigan’s fund raising call center. The call center work was typically unsatisfying, repetitive, and emotionally taxing due to verbal abuse and rejection (rejection rate up to 93%) by those called. Call center management tried the usual incentives – cash prizes, competitive games – with no improvement in caller satisfaction or productivity.

The call center was raising funds for student scholarships. So Grant brought in a student who had benefited from the call center’s scholarship fundraising. The student told the callers how much the scholarship changed his life and how excited he was to have a job working for Teach for America.

Within a month after the testimonial, workers spent 142% more time on phone and brought in 172% more revenue using the same script. Subsequent similar studies showed revenues soaring 400% in part by just showing the callers letters from grateful scholarship recipients.

Most curiously, when interviewed, the callers actively discounted the possibility that their brief encounter with the student was the cause for improvements. They gave other reasons like they had more practice, there was a better alumni pool in that period, or they just got lucky. Five follow up studies confirmed the results.

According the Grant, the good feelings had bypassed the callers’ conscious cognitive processes and went straight to a more subconscious source of motivation. They were more driven to succeed, even if they could not pinpoint the trigger for that drive. Grant calls it “prosocial motivation”…the desire to help others, independent of easily foreseeable payback.

In another study with Borders Books, workers contributed to an employee-beneficiary fund (to help with pregnancy, funerals etc.) managed by the staff. Borders matched employee contributions. The study showed that it was not the beneficiaries that showed the most significant increase in their commitment to Borders; it was the donors… even those who gave a few dollars a week. Interviews determined workers were grateful to the company for the opportunity to affirm a valued aspect of their identities As a result they developed stronger affective commitment to the company.

These study findings cannot be more important to advancement professionals for two reasons: The call center wisdom is directly applicable to motivating advancement staff and volunteers by making the fruits of their labor real in human terms. The need to constantly show how philanthropic funds are being used to help people will pay enormous proactive dividends. And the Borders study makes clear that donors feel good about giving, donors themselves benefit from their generosity and will appreciate your organization (and you) for helping them to fulfill their philanthropic needs.

Your takes:

1. Keep your mission front and center at all possible times for your staff and volunteers.

2. Try to put a human face on your mission.

3. Never forget that you are giving something to your donors by giving them a worthy purpose and use for their philanthropy.

For more information about Copley Raff and its spectrum of nonprofit organization consulting services, please see