The twin motivations underpinning why people give up their time for free: public good and private gain

Online discussion events carry significant reputational and operational risk for the project team involved.

The knock-on effects of weak / limited participation can be significant, not least in curtailing the likelihood that the same group will have another go (even with a different group of participants) in future.

While any damage to confidence and willingness is the primary concern from a capacity development point of view (many of the projects we work with are internal to IDS, and involve people with whom we have worked with on previous contracts) for the project the central concern is obviously about what they actually glean from the discussion itself and how it affects their own reputation as convenors, mobilisers and influencers.

In many cases online discussion events are used as levers within the research / programme cycle that drive the process forward. This means the role they play is specifically linked in to (and so inextricably linked with) the next stage. Failure in the event can therefore have non-trivial consequences.

To bring this to life, a discussion event can serve to bring together stakeholders to co-construct a research agenda or project scope (inception); to compare / contrast case study experience or stakeholder positionality around a key challenge (context analysis); or to reflect on / make sense of a process that is coming to a conclusion and needs to be wound up / shared with the world (synthesis / learning).

You can see how they can be seen as linking devices. Some projects embrace this, convening 5 or 6 events over 18 months. Designing-in such dependencies makes online discussion events inherently risky. But ironically, they force teams to invest in smarter ways (either with cash and / or time resources).

Within project teams we talk a lot about understanding the risks involved, and managing them one way or another.

One strategy we never recommend, and have only adopted once or twice, is to pay participants. The subject has come up on several occasions along with other strategies to increase the chances (or minimise the risks) that not enough posts are added to the discussion.

Why don’t we recommend it? Because aside from being a bit lazy and deceitful it breaks the balance of public good / private gain. But also because its unnecessary.

We think of this as a delicate balance of forces that, if harnessed correctly, serve to generate all the motivations that should be required for a group of peers to participate in a healthy and vibrant discussion.

In our context the ‘yin’ of public good refers to the value participants perceive in the project convening the event itself: its agenda (in relation to their worldview), approaches, likelihood of having a positive impact and influence.

But all participants are also motivated somehow by the ‘yang’ of private gain, in which for one reason or another they see themselves advancing towards their own personal markers of achievement through being involved.

The chances of having our say, of mixing with the great and the good, of sharing new thinking, of countering perspectives we oppose and resist, of being included or of hearing directly from others are all common benefits of participation.

Other more speculative motivators could include the improvement of future job prospects (for research or consultants), of exposure of research work (in print or among peer groups), or of potential funding opportunities where donors are present.

How do we keep the two opposing forces in balance?

Although the project must respect the value of private gain for individual participants (and even stress this on occasion) it can champion the public gain aspect effectively and can control and direct motivations along a course that suits its needs. This is done because the project team

  1. sets the agenda for discussion – what, why, when, and who
  2. facilitates the conversation – trajectory, tone, timing, transition
  3. controls the post-event decisions – synthesis, communications, down-stream activities,

However, it must balance the presentation and the substance of all this so that while speaking to its own agenda (‘our central research question is …’) it makes participants feel that the event is as much for them as for other stakeholders (funders etc).

One of the earliest activities we encourage project teams to undertake is the production of a ‘rationale’ and ‘proposition’ statements. The rationale is how the project describes to itself why it is holding the event, whereas the proposition is how it attempts to tempt participants.

This ‘irresistible invitation’ is the first among many steps along the way to making sure project teams balance public good and private gain agendas. And as a result, they never need to pay people to participate.

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