The Y Proves that a Little Recognition Goes a Long Way

Mar 24, 2019

CHICAGO: It's an old notion-a little recognition goes a long way-but the YMCA of the USA and researchers put this to the test during a three-year research project at the YMCA of The Triangle to determine the impact of social recognition on decision making and well-being.

The results, published today as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, found that the promise of social recognition (with permission) resulted in a 23 percent increase in membership usage of the YMCA over a one-month period.

This social recognition process—referred to as nudging in policy circles—describes behavior change that takes place after a non-monetary incentive—in this case recognition. Social recognition interventions have long-thought to be a motivator in driving change, but the effect on people's overall behavior and well-being remained unclear until the Y proved it in a real-world setting.

The concept of recognition has been around for many years but showing that it changes behavior is only half the story: we need tools to understand whether such interventions are a socially efficient alternative to monetary incentives once people's general well-being is taken into account, said Luigi Butera, Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Business School. Proving a long-thought concept to be true has applications across many industries, but for nonprofits who are always looking for inexpensive ways to motivate members, donors and volunteers, this could be a game changer.

To find out how social recognition works within the YMCA setting, researchers conducted a field experiment with members of the YMCA of the Triangle in North Carolina. Y members who opted-in to the study randomly received social recognition and a $2 per-visit donation made in their name to the YMCA of the Triangle. At the end of a month, an email was sent to randomly selected participants recognizing how many times these members visited the Y as well as how much money was donated in their name. The study also elicited the monetary value members placed on being (or not being) socially recognized for all levels of future attendance. The majority of members would pay to be recognized if they expected to go to the YMCA more than four times a month.

The results found the promise of social recognition increased behavior, resulting in a 23 percent uptick in membership usage. Importantly people were, on average, willing to pay to receive recognition, showing that such recognition led to an overall increase in well-being for those in the study.

It's a long-held notion that social recognition is a zero-sum game, i.e., if one person wins another one must lose. But that may not be true on average, and thanks to the Y's capacity to let us test our theory in a field setting, we found that formal social recognition to those who opt-in is a valuable member benefit. When we generalize the well-being effects to the rest of the YMCA of the Triangle population, the results on well-being become negative however. This shows the benefit of allowing people to opt-in to such recognition programs, added Robert Metcalfe, Assistant Professor, Boston University. Recognition is relatively easy to replicate and implement in other settings and can have a big impact on everything from membership engagement to donor relations.

The Y will use social recognition in two ways, to further enhance the Y membership experience in programs that improve health, develop children and teens and enhance communities and to improve fundraising and volunteer efforts.

Working with the researchers to help prove these long-held notions really lends credibility to the results, especially as nonprofits look for new ways maximize resources, said Maria-Alicia Serrano, Senior Director, Research, Analytics and Insights, YMCA of the USA. From a membership and a fundraising perspective, this study reinforces how crucial it is to create real, authentic connections with our members, volunteers and donors who come to the Y on a regular basis.

It was the YMCA of the Triangle's pleasure to participate in this study. The findings and implications for organizations like the Y are significant as we work to help people get healthier and improve the community, said Tony Campione, Chief Experience Officer, YMCA of the Triangle. At the Y, relationships and connections matter. Data from this study clarifies just how much. (PRN)

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