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Snap Poll: Gauging ‘Public Service Motivation’ to work for nonprofits

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By Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman Richard M. Clerkin and Joanne G. Carman

Effectively managing human resources is essential to nonprofit organizational performance. If nonprofit organizations are unable to attract, hire, motivate, develop, reward and retain talented individuals, then organizational performance will suffer.

In contrast to a wider array of motivational tools and techniques found in the private sector, a nonprofit managers’ motivational tool kit is often limited to motivators/incentives that emphasize their employees’ ability to work for the larger public or community interest. 

With this background, we were curious about what motivates PJ readers to work in the nonprofit sector. About 120 people responded to our recently completed PJ Snap Poll. While about 16 percent of the respondents worked in the government or for-profit sector or were self-employed, most of those respondents provided consulting services or were previously employed by nonprofits. Since their motivations to work are not significantly different from those currently working in the nonprofit sector, we report the combined results below.

Public Administration scholars have used this observation and developed a concept called Public Service Motivation (PSM). PSM is a needs-based approach to motivation. Individuals have a predisposition to respond to motives grounded mainly in public serving institutions or organizations. It is based on the idea that people have innate motives for other-regarding behavior. These motives include rational (maximizing individual self-interest), normative (beliefs and values), and affective (emotional) needs to contribute to something larger than themselves. People may sate PSM needs in different ways, including working in the nonprofit sector.

Research consistently shows that, on average, people who work in the government and nonprofit sector have higher levels of PSM than those employed in the for-profit sector. Recent research provides evidence that PSM can drive college students to want to work in the government or nonprofit sector more than in the for-profit sector. Additional research indicates that those employees with higher levels of PSM value intrinsic (i.e., doing important work, having the opportunity to serve society) over extrinsic (e.g., economic rewards) aspects of work.

As expected from extant PSM research, the most important reason for our PJ Snap Poll respondents to engage in nonprofit work is that it allows them to contribute to society in a meaningful way. As one respondent states, “In my case, I can do the work with flexibility, according to the community’s need, not beholden to insurance companies. I can sit with a person and look at their whole world and help them find creative solutions to their needs.”

PJ Snap PollOur respondents also have a passion for their work and want to make a difference in society. For example, “For me specifically, helping philanthropists feed their own passion through transformational, legacy gifts is a RUSH! Second to that, seeing the light bulb go on when another potential donor ‘gets it,’ that they can have similar positive impact – everyone wants to make a difference, whether they admit it or not.”

However, just because we observe that PSM motivates people to continue their work in the nonprofit sector, it does not necessarily follow that nonprofit leaders can forget about the more instrumental aspects of work – a paycheck. As one respondent stated, they work in the nonprofit sector because of the “interesting people; money is not the main motive.”

While money may not be the main motive, it is still important; more than two-thirds agree or strongly agree that a paycheck motivates them. As one respondent eloquently stated, “More and more – the economics of my work interfere with my capacity to focus. The pay and personal time management (prioritizing – family vs. work/passionate pursuits) are constant challenges. I’m also struck by how much there is out there about ‘doing what you love,’ ‘find your passion,’ ‘get paid to do what you love,’ etc. I’m already doing that and sometimes I risk burnout. But when I look for ‘other’ interests I find that my passion/job has seeped into every facet of my life. And how can you possibly ask, ‘What’s next?’ when you have obviously arrived? Challenging…”

This tension between the expressive and instrumental elements of nonprofit work gets to the crux of the challenge nonprofit leaders face as they try to motivate their employees. The expressive part of nonprofits focuses on the values that draw people to work for an organization. This sometimes can conflict with the instrumental business side of nonprofits. While nonprofit leaders can structure their workplaces to help nurture and meet their employees’ PSM needs, they must realize that basic needs for economic security and opportunities for personal and professional growth must also be maintained.

For example, nonprofits can help foster their employee’s PSM by developing performance appraisal and monitoring systems that encourage public serving behaviors or provide opportunities for direct contact between employees and beneficiaries of services so they can see the tangible difference they are making in society. However, they must also be concerned about issues of fair and equitable compensation and employee burnout.

PSM has promise for helping nonprofit leaders select, motivate and retain their employees, but it is just one arrow in the nonprofit leader’s motivational quiver.


Richard M. Clerkin is an Associate Professor in the Public Administration Department at NC State University. His teaching and research focuses on philanthropy and management and he is the director of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management. Joanne G. Carman is an Associate Professor in the Political Science and Public Administration Department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her teaching and research focuses on program evaluation and nonprofit management, and she is the coordinator of the Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

For additional information, please see:

Clerkin, R.M. & Coggburn, J. D. (2012). The Dimensions of Public Service Motivation and Sector Work Preferences. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 32 (3), 209-235.

Paarlberg, L.E., Perry, J.L., & Hondeghem, A. (2008). “From Theory to Practice: Strategies for Applying Public Service Motivation.” In J. L. Perry and A. Hondeghem (Eds.), Motivation in Public Management: The Call of Public Service. NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 268-293.

Perry, J.L., & Wise, L.R. (1990). “”The Motivational Bases of Public Service.” Public Administration Review, 50(3): 367-373.

Wright, B.E., & Christensen, R.K. (2010). “Public Service Motivation: A Test of the Job-Attraction-Selection-Attrition Model. International Public Management Journal, 13(2): 155-176.

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