Incentive vs. Recognition…there really IS a difference

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I sit in on plenty of calls and speak to lots of nonprofits about rewards, incentives, gifts, prizes, and recognition.  (For the record, the word ‘prize’ makes me wince.)  On a recent call with Kris Eschman and Wayne Baldaro from NAMI, they relayed that overcoming the incentive mentality with their affiliates regarding recognition programs is challenging.  However, they explained, once there is a breakthrough with the chapters and the leadership truly gets it, the fundraising skyrockets.

So, let’s do a quick recap of incentive and recognition programs:  an incentive program stimulates activity, and the ‘payment’ is a prize.  A recognition program acknowledges and reinforces the accomplishments of individuals.  A recognition program promotes a recognition culture.  A recognition culture promotes long-term goals and values.  A recognition culture focuses on acknowledging the efforts of each person's capacity. 

About 14 years ago, I was finishing my degree – after taking a hiatus and raising a family.  As I sat in my first day of calculus class as a 35-year old, the academic interruption was apparent.  I filled out the informational card on my desk, and then there was question #4…  have you taken Algebra I and Algebra II, and if so, what year?  Using a little bit of algebra to determine the exact year, I answered ‘yes’ and ‘1989’ (to spare you the mathematical analysis, it was 15 years prior).  And there began the struggle.  I attended every class and left completely confused.  There was so much I didn’t remember, so much I didn’t pay attention to as a 19-year old, and things were moving quickly.  I had to do something.  I went to the college bookstore and purchased an algebra book, and then went to the tutoring lab and signed up for a calculus tutor twice a week. 

The tutoring sessions were grueling, and I know I frustrated the 20-year old math genius.  The tutor would respond to my thousands of why questions with ‘well, that’s just the rule.’ I would go home every evening discouraged but determined.  If the professor assigned ten problems to do, I would complete 20.  I would have my calculus book laid out next to my algebra book, and where it would take other students minutes to complete an assignment, it would take me hours.  I did this routine every day of the week.  Every. Single. Day.

My first test results came back, and I received a 74%.  I had mixed emotions.  Excited that I was ‘getting it’ but frustrated that it was average.  (If you know me at all, you are fully aware that I am the consummate over-achiever.)  It was time to dig in even harder now.  My daily routine of three hours of calculus was now five hours.  I was determined.

Three weeks later, test two was in the books.  I sat in class that Thursday, anxiously awaiting the results.  Professor Boehm handed me my paper, and I couldn’t tell by her expression whether I should turn it over or run.  I flipped the paper over, and tears filled my eyes.  The bell rang, and I hurried out of class, went straight to my car, and called my Dad.  “Dad, I got a 97% on my calc test.”  My Dad and I rejoiced and cried (okay, I did the crying).  He told me how incredibly proud he was of me, how happy he was of my accomplishment, and what an inspiration I was.

My Dad found me that evening after work and handed me a medal.  The plastic kind.  The kind you get for a quarter in the gumball machine.  The kind with the long red, white, and blue ribbon.  The kind with the shiny gold embossed charm at the end, with plastic nodes still attached from the factory.  I wore that medal proudly.  I hung it above my desk.  I even wore it on graduation day. 

Recognition appreciates the capacity of an individual.  Recognition shows gratitude and acknowledges the value of an individual.  Recognition is not merely a reaction to excellent performance; it is the cause of it. The difference between incentive and recognition is the purpose. The purpose of incentive is getting something good; the purpose of recognition is doing something good.