On Monday, the front page of the Guardian carried a story about a scheme being proposed in Windsor & Maidenhead where new volunteers get Nectar Points in exchange for carrying out good works: hold a tea party for pensioners, get money off at Argos.
There seems some potential problems with this idea. First of all, it puts a clear financial value on each good work. Second that financial value is very small. And it’s not clear that people volunteer in their community because of financial incentives, particularly relatively piffling ones.
The council says its idea is based on the ideas popularised in Nudge, the influential book by two American academics, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. But it’s not clear that it really follows their concepts.
Nudge is a book about choice architecture, one of the many such books to be published in the wake of pop economics bible Freakonomics. It says, essentially, that people are much more likely to do the right thing if it’s made easier for them.
For example, it says, most of us don’t save enough for our retirement, not because we don’t want to, but because it’s complicated and difficult, and we never get round to it. If the default option on the company pension scheme changes, people accept it happily, and save more.
Nudge, however, doesn’t say that people are more likely to do the right thing when they’re financially incentivised to do so.
In fact, many economists believe the opposite happens. If you offer people financial incentives, it drives out the social incentives which previously motivated them.*
At the moment, if you work for your community, you’re motivated by a number of factors. One is often enjoyment of the actual process, or a sense of satisfaction at what you’re creating. Another is the warm glow of altruism. Another is camaraderie, or the regard of your peers.
If you offer people a fixed rate in money-off vouchers, you risk replacing those motivations with financial ones. Instead of asking, “How much good have I done?” they may ask, “Is what I’ve done worth the reward I’ve received?”
If the reward is enough Nectar Points for an eight-pack of loo roll, the answer could well be no.
The Windsor scheme at least offers cash equivalents rather than cash. So long as this is seen as a fringe benefit – a non-financial incentive in addition to the other non-financial incentives – it may not drive people away, and may even encourage loyalty among existing volunteers. However, it seems a very chancy game to play.
Of course, an additional benefit of the scheme is that it’s generated loads of publicity. That’s worth a lot, even if the scheme itself turns out to be a failure.
* There’s a famous example of this happening in an Israeli nursery, which introduced penalty fees for parents who turned up late to collect children. The nursery found that parents turned up later still. They had previously made an effort not to turn up late because they felt social obligations to the nursery staff. Now, any guilt they felt could be assuaged by forking out cash.
The nursery realised this and scrapped the fees. But the parents carried on turning up late, because they no longer viewed it as a social problem, but a financial one – even though there was no longer and financial cost.
Similarly, once you’ve told a volunteer their work is driven by financial values, not social ones, you can’t go back.