Several years ago I was invited to speak at a HR convention in a reputed multinational company. My talk was well appreciated and one of the HR managers present asked me how was it possible to motivate people in the NGO sector while it was challenging to retain highly qualified achievers in the private sector. He wanted to know what was it that the NGO sector was doing that they could learn from. As I travelled back to Saragur, I started to think whether this observation was indeed true. Are people truly different in these two sectors? Are the needs of people different? Can one deploy different motivation strategies to ensure that people do not leave?
I have been pondering on this question since then and have come up with my own favorite explanation. I feel that this is the closest that I can come to think of a substantial reason to explain people’s behaviors and their needs and how organizations can fulfill these needs.
I now believe that every individual, whether he is in the Private sector of in the Non-profit sector, is driven by 2 fundamental needs. For want of better terms I would like to call them ‘Ambition’ and ‘Aspiration’. Lest I sound judgmental, let me clarify that these are to be read as value neutral nouns. I would define ‘Ambition’ as the desire for a person for something for him or herself. Something, which he would want to possess on a personal level. It could be a title, more money, visibility, the latest laptop, a fancy car, a higher degree, anything that he would want for himself. ‘Aspiration’ for me would reflect what he would like to do for others – something that he desires to do for society and the community around him. Each of us carry these tendencies within us in different shades. While one may be more ambitious and have a lesser degree of aspirations; another could have large societal aspirations and minimal ambitions for himself. More of the first category gravitates towards the private sector while the second have a tendency to move towards the public and non-profit sectors. I am yet to meet someone who has only aspirations or wholly devoted to only his personal cause. The best of people in the non-profit sector nourish secret ambitions and would like to be known and constantly seek affirmation from their peers; while I have seen many a CEO who may seem to be devoted to his company’s bottom lines quietly do his bit to society without much fanfare. This balance of ambition and aspiration is critical for a person to stay back wherever he is working. If a non-profit fails to fulfill the ambitions (either expressed or discrete) of people who otherwise seem to be consumed by societal aspirations, they would eventually lose them. Similarly, merely fulfilling the ambitions of employees in a large private company is no guarantee to retain them. One needs to identify what his aspirations are and try and help meet them.
The real challenge for any HR management team vested with the responsibility of motivating and retaining their employees is to be able to work with the people and help them understand and articulate each of their ambitions and aspirations. One needs to help them get these reasonably fulfilled and met. Only when this happens can we be reasonably sure that our best people stay with us. This necessitates that non-profits pay attention to some of the unexpressed and hidden personal desires and needs of their people. Corporate employers need to devise different ways and means of getting the aspirational needs of their employees fulfilled through different social causes. Striking this balance could very well be the secret for sustaining and building large organizations whether they are in the private or in the public sector.