People want to do meaningful work: how connecting staff with clients and beneficiaries can supercharge your organisation

This is the story of how one fundraising team boosted their weekly productivity by 400 percent.

It wasn’t due to pay rises or catered lunches – or even an inspiring or well-trained manager giving staff the motivation to do their work better.

Rather, a growing body of research shows that end users – clients, patients and others who benefit from your organisation’s products or services – are the best way to truly motivate staff and volunteers.

Making a difference makes a difference

Adam Grant is a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of bestseller Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.

Grant describes his work with a group of university fundraisers with responsibility for calling alumni and convincing them to donate money.

These fundraisers face challenges common to cold-calling work – repetitiveness, lack of autonomy and unreceptive clients. Burnout is high and staff turnover can reach as high as 400 percent per year! One of the fundraisers even had a sign by his desk saying, ‘Doing a good job here is like wetting your pants in a dark suit. You get a warm feeling, but no one else notices.’

Grant asked thousands of executives to propose ways to better motivate the fundraisers, and received suggestions like pay increases, free food, and recognition. But those made little difference.

Fewer than one percent of the leaders suggested the intervention that finally had a significant impact: showing the fundraisers how their work actually makes a difference.

Grant simply invited one student, who had received a scholarship funded by the donations that the fundraisers were soliciting, to come in and spend just five minutes describing how the scholarship changed his life.

One month after the student’s visit the fundraising team had doubled the number of calls they made per-hour, and increased their weekly revenue by more than 400 percent!

So what happened?

Outsourcing motivation

What happened was that connecting staff to the ultimate beneficiaries of their work infused it with meaning, which study after study shows is one of the key features people seek in their work.

There are three basic mechanisms at work here.

Firstly, staff see and hear the direct impact of their work on others – it’s humanised by real-life examples of exactly how they’re making a difference.

Secondly, the expression of appreciation towards staff cannot be underestimated. Though they probably have an intellectual sense of how their work improves the lives of others, hearing that beneficiaries or clients appreciate their efforts, directly from ‘the horse’s mouth’, is a much more powerful motivator.

And finally, staff developing empathy and an understanding of end users’ problems and needs helps them to become more committed to helping them.

So how can you connect more staff with your organisation’s clients, beneficiaries or end users to inspire and motivate them? Grant suggests eight simple steps:

1. Identify those impacted by your organisation– past, present and future

It’s easy to make assumptions about who your organisation’s clients and beneficiaries actually are. If you or your team aren’t working directly with them, it’s worth refreshing your knowledge of exactly who benefits from your work – their ages, genders, cultural and family backgrounds and all the different ways they may actually be benefitting.

Speak to front-line staff, as well as others at various levels across your organisation to identify the different groups of clients and also those who’ve benefited from your organisation’s work in the past.

2. Unearth past feedback

Over the years, has your organisation received thank-you letters, emails or praise in any form from grateful clients, members or supporters? Amassed any client feedback from surveys or focus groups?

If you’ve been filing this information away for other purposes like marketing or acquitting a grant, consider pulling them out and sharing them with your staff – particularly those who don’t have much interaction with clients.

3. Hold events that invite clients or beneficiaries to share their experiences

While sharing stories second-hand can be motivating, a face-to-face connection with actual people will have the strongest emotional impact on staff – especially when it’s clients or beneficiaries with whom staff don’t usually interact.

For example, HR staff at a cancer research institute probably have a fair sense of their work’s wider importance. But putting a name, face and story to that work by arranging for them to visit patients who benefit from their organisation’s research will be much more powerful.

4. Turn staff into clients

Experiment with practical tasks that place staff in clients’ shoes. For organisations doing advocacy or community development, this could involve staff spending time with and in the communities that are being served or who would benefit from your advocacy.

For an organisation that serves a vulnerable or disadvantaged group this may not an easy task, but there may be other ways for staff to still experience things from a client’s perspective. For example, back-office staff at a homelessness organisation could share a meal with those using the organisation’s services.

5. Find beneficiaries internally

You don’t always have to venture beyond your organisation to find those who benefit – boosting your team’s engagement and commitment could be as simple as finding them within.

For example, Grant’s research found that when a manager from a different department visited a call centre to thank frontline workers, those staff members increased their effort by more than half in the week that followed.

6. Engage staff performing ‘low-impact’ work

Working to engage staff whose jobs don’t have much of an impact themselves can be difficult – it just calls for a bit more creativity and thought.

For example, with a bit of training a data entry person or an accountant (depending on the organisation) could be occasionally engaged on the frontline by responding to social media queries or answering phone calls.

7. Share the message

Essentially, the process of outsourcing inspiration to clients is an exercise in communication, so recording and sharing any events in which staff and those who benefit from their work come together is an important piece of the puzzle.

That could come in the form of videos, photo galleries or written stories shared on your organisation’s website, intranet, bulletin board or social media accounts – anything to convey to staff the impact they have.

8. Recognise high-impact contributions

Depending on the size of your organisation, leaders can be removed from the activities of frontline staff – and that means instances of excellent service might go unnoticed.

That’s why peer recognition programs are important. Staff and volunteers can play a part in commending and rewarding colleagues who’ve made an excellent contribution, which can be a powerful motivator for others.

If you want to imbue your staff with lasting motivation, connecting them to those who benefit from their work can be incredibly valuable. When staff vividly understand the impact they’re making through their work by seeing it in action, they can become more motivated and productive – and, ultimately, that endows your organisation with the ability to have a bigger impact.

Does your organisation connect staff with the beneficiaries of your work? How does it impact their motivation? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Image: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy/Flickr.

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