Beyond business – how non-profit incentives bring out the best
by Rodger Stotz and Mike Ryan
Occasionally I am asked about the use of incentives in the non-profit sector, specifically to increase
altruistic behavior. Applying incentives to volunteering and other altruistic behaviors is a very sensitive
area. By its very nature, altruism is generally viewed as the unselfish concern for or devotion to the
welfare of others. As such, why would incentives be needed, or why would incentives work?
As so often is the case, research helps us to gain insights and answers to questions about the use of
incentives. A just released study on the effect of paid leave on blood donations (an altruistic behavior)
1 provides findings that demonstrate incentives can influence altruism. This study contributes to
the larger debate on the role of extrinsic incentives in stimulating pro-social behavior. The paper
cites recent field studies of blood donors (and actual donation behavior) and finds that donors are
positively affected by material rewards. This is consistent with other studies in 2000 that found
that "large enough" rewards do enhance pro-social behavior. The researchers also note that in another,
forthcoming study of American Red Cross blood drives, small “gifts” (T-shirts, mugs, coupons, etc.)
increased donations.
To summarize, these studies shed additional light on the impact of incentives in changing behavior,
even when the behavior is viewed as altruistic. It also adds a balance to the data provided in Dan Pink’s
book “DRIVE.” On page 47, Dan references a study on blood donations where he highlights the results
for women (donations drop with a cash award, and increase with a cash award plus the option to donate
it to charity). Interestingly, the results for men in that study are not statistically significant, as are the
results of the combined (men and women) group, which raises a question of how generalizable are the
While each study adds to the collective body of knowledge, it always pays to view one study as a unique
event and look to multiple studies to verify trends or findings that can be generalized.