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50 Shades of Self-Interest

ants and a branch

First, let me state my profound respect for people who volunteer for nonprofit stakeholder organizations. Offering your time, wisdom, treasure, social networks and focus in support of a “larger than life” organizational mission will always command my admiration and should be appreciated by all.

People volunteer for an array of reasons, ranging from altruism to self-interest. All are valid motivations, but it is important to know what motivates each of your volunteers, especially those in leadership positions.

I raise this issue in the context of what I perceive and has often been cited in literature as a general decline in leadership volunteer engagement. A common lament of CEOs and advancement officers is the lack of responsiveness of development volunteers, poor attendance of board and committee meetings, and the need for an increasingly staff driven fundraising effort.

After many years of interviewing and training thousands of volunteer leaders, I find there is no better route to understanding their motivations to serve than… to ask them. And when asked to share their motivations, I have found self-interest to be a baseline common theme. Self-interest comes in many forms; some are based in deeply held emotional feelings that are addressed by service, others are pragmatic and others support personal self-actualization.

Examples include:

Legacy, Respect: My father served on the board for many years and it is my honor to continue his legacy of leadership.

Gratitude, Guilt: I want to give back because of the opportunities I have had and my children have, that others do not.

Quid pro quo: I was asked by a good friend to join the board and I wanted to return the favor from a request I made of her.

Business: I sit on many boards as a way to help my business interests, and my boss asked me to join.

Self-esteem: I think the organization is well run and is well respected, and I want to be associated with a winner.

Social status: The board has many prominent members and I want to be associated with them.

Self-improvement: I can learn a lot about interests of mine (investing, art curation, history, healthcare) by being on the board.

Professional: I need nonprofit board service in order to improve my executive standing in my company.

Family: My child has this disease/disability (diabetes, cancer, intellectual disability) so I want to support research and services that will help my child. My grounding in social justice motivates me to help lead this organization, because I want a better future for my children.

Gratitude: I credit this school with helping me be successful in business and feel an obligation to help future students, to pay it forward.

All of these motivations are valid and can result in remarkable involvement by the volunteer. In order to maximized their involvement, however, you need to know the volunteer’s core motivation for serving.

When the involvement or responsiveness of board members, or committee volunteers, or campaign cabinet members fall short of your expectations, I would first look to see if you know what was originally driving their willingness to become involved. Then determine if you are designing engagement strategies that align with their motivations.

And if you do not know their core motivation…ask them!


Your takes:

1. When recruiting leadership, establish up front the sorts of motivations that you feel will be best addressed by your organization’s volunteer management methods and by your mission.

2. If you have a “representative” board, one that is primarily populated by people representing their employer, also seek to find the personal connection the board member has to your mission, and design your engagement strategy accordingly.

3. Take 30 minutes out of a board agenda and have each director share publicly what motivates them to be a leader of your organization. It will be revealing, will re-solidify their commitment to your organization, or help them realize they are not aligned with the important responsibility for which they have signed up.




  1. Claudia E. Swain


    Thank you. This is going on my next committee agenda. I am also doing a presentation to another non-profit next month, and I will give you full credit for this good idea!

    Thanks so much,

  2. Mark T. Cummings

    These are really insightful observations and not understanding these specific motivations for charitable engagement is done at one’s own peril.

  3. Charles Richardson


    Such insightful and forward thinking thoughts. If only our POTUS had a fraction of your humanity we would be in a good place.

  4. Pingback:Will Legacy Naming Recognition Become Too Fraught for Organizations? | Copley Raff

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