Motivation: Why Can’t I Reach More People?

One of the most critical parts we find in helping ministries and non profits is to get into the unique mindset of each organization. Many facets are unique to the organization, but a few issues run consistently through most organizations we’ve worked with. One theme that I’ve noticed is something that I call “Assumed Intrinsic Motivation,” which I’m sure means nothing to anyone at this point. It’s actually a simple concept, but in order for it to make sense, I need to unpack a few ideas first:


First let me be clear about what I mean by empathy. Frequently this term is confused with sympathy, and when I encourage clients to empathize, they think that I want them to feel sorry for people. What I am actually asking them to do is to understand what their audience is experiencing when they hear from the client. What is the experience like for the audience, which might be a donor, a beneficiary, or a customer? What is the primary question they have, and when that question is answered, what should they do about it?

Lack of clarity and simplicity harms communication, and I see a lot of it in non-profits. Typically this is because people inside of organizations have a hard time empathizing with the outside audience. They’re not jerks; they are just wrapped up in their own subjective experience. The best way for them to start empathizing is to look at user experience.

User Experience

Another design term, this one can seem too cold and calculated for people in ministry. But the fact remains that we all have users. They might be donors, foster families, or paying customers. If you object to that term, substitute with something that feels more appropriate to your work. Regardless of what you call them, users have a defined experience when you communicate with them, and you should know what that is like.

Where and when are people likely to interact with you? Are they at their desk at work? Are the in bed on their smartphone? Are they getting the mail at the end of the day? These lead to more specific questions: Is it dark, or well lit? Quiet, or noisy? Prone to distraction? Are they tired? Does your cause lead them to feel empowered, or might they see an outsized problem they don’t have an answer for? Are they stressed about money? Time? By understanding where a person is, you can better understand how they might be motivated.


This one is simple: why do people do the things they do? Modern research would suggest that the most common reason for donating time and money to a cause in this century is not necessarily to meet needs in an altruistic fashion. Many people help because of what it will say about them; they want to be the kind of person that helps. If you think about the difference between motivation through altruism and self-image, you can imagine that you would communicate very differently. Better understanding of your audience’s motivation goes a long way toward addressing their needs the right way.

Assumed Intrinsic Motivation

Having defined empathy, user experience, and motivation, you can hopefully see where I’m going. If you are operating a non-profit that you care deeply about but you have a hard time understanding why more people don’t engage, it could be the assumptions you make about others. By failing to empathize with people that are not like you, you have created an inappropriate user experience and failed to motivate them. Assumed Intrinsic Motivation leads to two primary problems:

1 – You talk to yourself instead of your audience

Trust me, your audience is different from you. The most obvious proof I can offer is that your audience has not started, nor do they work at, your non-profit. That fact alone tells you that they do not think and feel like you, and that they are not motivated the way that you are. If you write everything yourself, proof it yourself, and approve it yourself, you are talking to you. Remember that you are not the audience, and communicate to their needs, not yours. This is harder than it sounds, because everyone likes communicating to themselves. Your own words typically resonate well with yourself.

2 – You limit your scope to people that are just like you

Not everyone will engage in the same way. Most will engage at a lower level than you will. While your journey started with a high level of caring and moved into proactive involvement, it’s a mistake to assume that others will do the same. Some will, but many will not, and you ignore that second group at your peril. Most ministries and non-profits don’t need to move people from caring to proactive, they need to move people from unaware to contributing. If you set your sights on your own level of involvement because you assume others share your intrinsic motivation, you’ve put a very low ceiling on the number of people you can work with.

There’s good news, though: these tendencies can be corrected. The first step is realizing that you are not the audience. Learn who they are, reach them in a way that they need, and when they start doing what you want them to do, get out of the way.

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