I recently came across the following quote from management consultant and author, Robert Lilienfeld, and archaeologist and author, William Rathje: “Myth: we have to save the earth. Frankly, the earth doesn’t need to be saved…. The planet has survived cataclysmic and catastrophic changes for millions upon millions of years…. Saving the environment is really about saving our environment – making it safe for ourselves, our children, and the world as we know it. If more people saw the issue as one of saving themselves, we would probably see increased motivation and commitment to actually do so.” [emphasis added]

This got me thinking about self-interest. It’s a contrarian thing to say in these times of obscene bonuses for immoral behavior and a financial system on the ropes as a result of unbridled greed, but self-interest isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s pretty darn necessary and a lot of good can come from it.

I know, I know, I felt the collective shudder that just went out when that statement was published on this blog. After all, you work for a nonprofit. Let someone accuse you of failing to fulfill your mission, and you’ll accept that as a challenge to dedicate yourself with even more fervor. Let someone accuse you of lack of financial expertise, and you’ll nod knowingly, probably even take some secret pride in the affirmation of your focus on higher matters. But just let someone – anyone – so much as hint that you do anything out of self-interest and, well, brother, them’s fightin’ words if ever I heard ‘em!

I say, it’s time to get over it. First of all, no one does anything over which they have any control that is not out of self-interest. Yup, even Mother Teresa, the universal symbol for selflessness, acted out of self-interest. She chose to sacrifice her own comforts for the children she saved because she preferred that to not doing it. This makes her no less admirable or praise-worthy.

So, to get back to the quote, let’s think about what this means for our organizations. Will some people be motivated by the abstract goodness of our causes? Of course. Like Mother Teresa, they will choose to support what is right because they prefer that to not supporting it. But, as the above authors point out, won’t we be more successful in obtaining donors, supporters, volunteers, what have you, if we can find a hook through which what is right also serves what is in their personal interest on a more fundamental level?

Getting people off the streets is noble; bringing crime in my neighborhood down as a result makes me feel safer. Feeding the hungry is noble; keeping the cost of healthcare down because more people are better nourished helps my pocketbook. And so on. You get the idea.

So, think about what stakeholder self-interest means to your nonprofit and how you can leverage it. Self-interest pursued at the expense of others is immoral. But self-interest pursued for the benefit of others is simply common sense.

And, by the way, since you work for a nonprofit, you undoubtedly deserve to be paid more. There’s nothing wrong with that self-interest, either.

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