Matt Wilson: What Motivates Volunteers?


This article originally appeared on Under30CEO.com

In business there are several reasons why entrepreneurs start their business and ultimately succeed. But today, networks of people are collaborating everyday to become part of something greater than themselves. In some cases, these companies not only motivate their employees but entrepreneurs. Companies like CNN iReport, Threadless and Wikipedia may tap people motivated by curiosity, personal interests, or deeply held social values. These three categories can provide a good starting point for understanding why customers choose to collaborate.

Love

In many cases, participants choose to collaborate with others out of purely social motivations. These motivations may include: altruism (the desire to contribute to the common good); a passionate interest in the topic; work that is entertaining, fun, or creative; participation and connection in a community; the chance to contribute to social values they believe in (such as a cause or candidate); or a sense of duty or obligation (perhaps because they are already enjoying the benefits of the project).

These social motivations are the kind that spurred supporters of Barack Obama to participate in the MyBO network for his candidacy. They also explain why users contribute to Wikipedia without financial reward or byline. New Wikipedia articles are typically written by users with a particular knowledge of their subject and often a passionate interest in it. Other users who frequent Wikipedia may take the time to fix an occasional misspelling or error that they spot out of gratitude for the value they gain from the site. The power of the networking tools behind MyBO and Wikipedia is that they allow all these small acts of generosity to add up to very large impact, far beyond what was feasible in our prenetworked past, when it was virtually impossible to amass and assess contributions of people scattered around the world.

As Clay Shirky has observed, “We have always loved one another. We’re human. It’s something we’re good at. But up until recently, the radius and half-life of that affection has been quite limited. With love alone, you can get a birthday party together. Add coordinating tools, and you can write an operating system… In the past, we could do little things for love, but big things, big things required money. Now, we can do big things for love.”

But what if your cause is not an inspiring political candidate or a charity or a free public service? It is very unlikely that you will get people to contribute for “love” alone, even if they do have a passion for the project. Your customers may love taking photos of local events, but they may not want to share them anonymously on your news platform if you will be earning a profit from and retaining the rights to the images they produced. Fortunately, humans harbor other motivations.

Glory

The key to CNN attracting unpaid collaborators to its iReport news project is that their submissions are not anonymous. If a customer’s photo, video, or story appears on CNN’s Web site or broadcast, his or her name is credited for all to see. The opportunity to be seen as a “citizen journalist” contributing to such famous and popular network provides a powerful motivation to the iReport customer network.

Even without such a mass-media spotlight as CNN, mechanisms that highlight and confer social status can be an effective motivator for active collaborators. As we saw in the last chapter, the top participants in technical forums will answer thousands of questions posed by fellow customers when they are recognized in the forum as a major contributor. Forums can use public markers of status-awards, name recognition-to draw attention to users’ high level of contribution, their expertise and knowledge, or their creativity, taste, or style.

Money

Of course, sometimes the best way for a for-profit business to motivate network collaboration is to offer money or other commercial benefits.

When Cisco announced its Innovation Prize, or I-Prize, in 2008, the company placed an open call for teams anywhere in the world to identify billion-dollar business opportunities for Cisco’s Emerging Technologies Group. After several rounds of winnowing down twelve hundred business proposals received from 104 countries, Cisco announced the winners: Anna Gossen, Niels Gossen, and Sergey Bessonnitsyn, a wife, husband, and brother team of two computer science students and an engineer. The three not only received $250,000; they were also given the opportunity to work for Cisco on their proposed new venture, a “smart grid” framework to reduce the passive consumption of power by electronic devices. The prize award was a small price to pay for Cisco, which estimated that the project could generate a billion dollars in revenue within five to seven years.

It is important to note that while the prize was a good deal for Cisco, it also represented an extraordinary reward for the recipients, who were doing work (business plan development) that was not part of their normal careers or business. Some short-sighted companies have seized on the notion of “crowdsourcing” as a means to exploit the same vendors they would normally hire to carry out a professional task. Rather than hiring one firm to complete work, they simply ask many to submit a solution and offer to pay “the winner” at a rate similar to what would normally be professional work for hire. This kind of spec-work masquerading as “collaboration” can yield resentment and a bruised reputation, as ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky found when it tried to solicit logo designs for an advertising client with a thousand-dollar prize. Businesses should not confuse collaboration with exploitation. But money can be an effective reward when the sum received or the type of work is out-of-the-ordinary for participants.

Hybrids

In many cases the motivations for members of a network to collaborate with a business are a hybrid mix of social, status, and financial rewards. Threadless contestants may be motivated as much by the chance to see their design advertised and worn by others (they are not, generally, professional clothing designers) as by the cash reward. In the Netflix Prize (discussed in chapter 5), the team that produced the winning solution to improve the company’s recommendation engine received not only a million dollars but extensive coverage in mainstream media such as BusinessWeek, Wired magazine, and The New York Times. And although a quarter million dollars may have attracted participants to the Cisco I-Prize, the winners were probably motivated just as much by passion for their business idea as for their long-shot chance at winning the money.

This article originally appeared on Under30CEO.com and written by David Rogers, author of The Network Is Your Customer: Five Strategies to Thrive in a Digital Age and teaches at Columbia Business School

Follow Matt Wilson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MattWilsontv

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