The Virtue of Self-Interest

Is the volunteer talking about his personal needs being selfish---or sending you a message about how your organization can change?

“What’s in it for me?”

Few profanity-free lines could be more offensive in a gathering of association volunteers and staffers. Those people—and sometimes even members—are trained to understand that they’re all participating in the organization in the name of a greater good. The mission of the organization—and, more bluntly, its tax-exempt status—relies on a culture of selflessness.

But what if leaders did a better job of accommodating the selfish motives of the stakeholders that surround them?

“People generally screw up in areas they don’t care about.”

That’s an argument that Anna Caraveli makes in a recent blog post titled “Finding the Roots of True Engagement“—those roots being the often deeply personal interests of people in your association. Instead of treating client-hunting volunteers as people exploiting the association, or dismissing self-promotional speakers as corrosive influences of the association’s culture, there may be win-win opportunities to be found. Caraveli writes of some aggrieved chapter leaders she worked with: “In the course of pursuing personal benefit they created value the association could have benefited from if it noticed and leveraged it: new corporate relationships, significant innovations to association’s programs/products, liaison with customer groups that the association could not reach, discovery of pockets of demand the association was unaware of, new content and curricula, unique sense of community, etc.”

Caraveli is tossing a stink bomb in the room, if mindfully, and I’m not entirely on board with her argument. Nobody is a fan of the volunteer who is self-involved to the point of actively derailing discussions; you’ve likely had the sinking feeling of entering a promising conference session that quickly turned into a poorly veiled sales pitch.

But on a broader level, Caraveli is making an important point about the assumptions an associations makes about the people who enter its circle. The fact is, everybody has a personal motivation for engaging with you. On occasion, this may be unadulterated altruism. (And this person should, by all means, be given a halo on stage during your next annual meeting.) But more likely, your volunteers and staffers want some kind of personal or professional benefit from serving or working for you. The leader’s job is to hear out what that motivation is. It’s those motivations that drive successful products—but, as Caraveli suggests, many associations work in precisely the opposite way, assuming that the product will drive motivation.

Consider this from the staff level. Fast Company recently profiled Peter Platzer, CEO of a tech startup called Spire who says he hasn’t fired a single employee. How? By not assuming that the traditional definitions of on-the-job happiness apply. Plenty of tech firms figure that employees want to rise up the management ladder, but it’s not necessarily so. “Some of them may hate managing and do it just to get ahead,” says Platzer. “Then the company loses a great engineer and gains a bad manager.”

Instead, Platzer drills into motivations—what staffers genuinely want out of their jobs. Though quizzes and check-ins, the company learns more about its employees’ passions and does what it can to accommodate them. “It’s rare that someone screws up in an area that they’re passionate about,” he says. “People generally screw up in areas they don’t care about.” It’s a line that I hope Spire puts on its T-shirts, if not a billboard.

Too squishy for you? That’s fair—after all, you haven’t opened your doors to indulge everybody’s personal whim. In which case, John Spence’s “four pieces of paper” model might work better: Directly ask employees what their goals are, what tools they need from the organization they need, and hold them to those stated ambitions. The point is, success here starts by listening to what people want from you—and not pretending that there isn’t a bit of self-interest in the mix.

How do you discover the personal motivations of your volunteers, staffers, and members, and how do you effectively respond to them? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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