Are you maximizing “altruistic capital” in your work?

NavaAshrafHarvard B-School professor and behavioral economist Nava Ashraf travels the world researching the human desire to help others. She calls this urge “altruistic capital,” distinct in economic parlance from financial capital (cash assets), fixed capital (buildings, machines) and human capital (employee skill sets). I wonder if “altruistic capital” could be seen as a subset of “human capital” but I can also see that distinguishing it as a separate “capital” category is useful for research and for focusing attention on how altruism operates in organizational contexts.

Ashraf’s field experiments have challenged the assumption made by many private sector companies, economists, and development NGO’s that people are most efficiently incentivized by profit. Ashraf wondered if you could make an impact on behaviors by tapping into the altruistic drive and coming up with new ways to show people how their work helps others.

One of Ashraf’s studies took place in Zambia, involving 1200 hairdressers in a condom-distribution and HIV/AIDS education initiative. Some hairdressers were given financial incentives, others were acting purely in a volunteer capacity but were incentivized in non-monetary ways,

“In the nonfinancial reward group, each stylist received a large paper thermometer, like those often used in fundraising campaigns, to hang in her salon. Each condom sale garnered a star stamped on the thermometer, providing a visual measure of the stylist’s contribution to AIDS prevention in her community. Hairdressers who sold more than 216 condom packs during the yearlong study period were invited to an awards ceremony, along with five guests of their choosing, where they would be congratulated by a well-known Zambian health official.”

Result? On average the nonfinancial reward group sold twice as many condoms as the other groups.

If you’re part of an organization with a tight budget and big mission, such research insight is good as gold.  Although these findings may confirm what you already know, they may help you justify spending some time and effort in your organization to ask:

How can you work with your colleagues or grantees
to creatively mobilize and maximize altruistic capital
to achieve your mission?

* * *

Want to read more about Nava Ashraf? Follow link below to Harvard Business Review “Altruistic Capital: Harnessing Your Employees’ Intrinsic Goodwill” by Carmen Nobel

2 responses to “Are you maximizing “altruistic capital” in your work?

  1. Important caveat: while this research can spur creative thinking on how to do more with less and also how to involve ourselves and grantees in a richer web of meaning and satisfaction beyond cash incentives, Ashraf notes that this is not about “how to get poor people to do more stuff for free.” She notes, “volunteerism is not the next silver bullet (and it can be unfair to expect people in developing countries to work for free!)[…]. It was the group who was able to track their social impact, through the social rewards, that had the highest performance. The idea is not to exploit the desire to serve others by making people work for free, but rather to consider this other form of motivation that runs through individuals and design rewards and incentives to help encourage and leverage that.”

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