THE BLOG

Why Motivation Doesn't Matter

12/02/2011 09:07 am ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

While giving a speech to a prep school in New York, I was asked an awesome question by a high school senior looking to volunteer in an orphanage. He was concerned about the application question that asked the student to describe their motivation for volunteering.

Now, bear in mind that I had just gotten done telling this group that I, myself, only volunteered for the first time in Nepal because -- and I'm not particularly proud of this -- I wanted a good pick-up line for the ladies.

"So what should we say to that question?" he asked. "Clearly they want people who passionate about helping others, not about building their resume."

I thought about it. "I'm not sure I have a great answer," I said. "Maybe just lie on the application?"

This answer did not go over well with the teachers. But it did get me thinking about motivation.

Nonprofit organizations reasonably are looking for committed people. I think we often mistake commitment and motivation. I think what we mean is that they want people who are going to come and work hard and do a good job caring for the children.

I would agree with that. But that has nothing to do with motivation. I believe it's unreasonable to ask anyone, let alone students, to somehow be passionate about helping children in a country they've never been to. Moreover, I just haven't seen a whole lot of correlation between motivation and ultimate commitment.

For example: Let's say your organization had two volunteers coming. One volunteer had a resume that clearly showed he was ready to start a career in nonprofit. The other volunteer seemed only interested in padding his resume.

You have no way of knowing which one of them would be most affected by the experience. It would be just as likely that the resume-padding fellow would end up getting heavily involved in the organization, would return the next year, would become a major fundraiser and ambassador for that cause, maybe even find that it was his calling.

I know, because I was that second guy.

When I was writing "Little Princes," I told my editor at HarperCollins that on page one of the book I wanted to make sure people knew that I was volunteering only to impress people. I knew that my book would be classified as an inspirational story of how one man could make a difference in the world. I get that, but I also get why people would be turned off by stories of super men and women who want nothing more than to change the world. I, as a reader, have a hard time relating to that person. I imagine many share that feeling.

Motivation doesn't matter. It matters what you do once you get out there. It matters how you respond to a different culture. It matters what you do with that opportunity, not how, or why, you took it in the first place.

We want to lower barriers to getting people out volunteering. Because more of them can make more of a difference, and you never know which one of them it's going to be.

That's how we change the world.