August 31, 2018


Professional Development Grants for motivating research staff

[This post is the introduction of the resource “Professional Development Grants for motivating research staff” by Raymond Struyk. Download the resource.]

It is obvious that a think tank’s staff is its most valuable resource. High staff turnover and low productivity are clear signs of an under-motivated staff. Actually, signs of staff ennui in the form of high turnover rates appear to be fairly common. Among the 59 think tanks in transition and developing countries for which I have data on annual turnover rates, 27 percent have rates in the 21-40 percent range and another 13 percent have rates over 41 percent (Struyk 2015, Table 2.4). Such turnover imposes very significant costs on these think tanks in terms of recruiting, on-boarding, and training replacements. What can be done to raise research staff motivation and satisfaction?

Theories on staff motivation can be divided into two groups of motivational structures: those that rely heavily on external rewards and reinforcements (extrinsic or monetary), and those that rely on factors internal to the staff position (intrinsic or non-monetary), as shown in Table 1. Intrinsic incentives either reward by facilitating doing good work or enhance the analyst’s self-satisfaction and sense of self-worth. Monetary rewards are certainly also related to performance, but in a way that is external to the work itself. +

To extend this point, experts in human resource management of both for-profit and nonprofit organizations generally feel that adequate base pay is essential to retaining staff and for basic motivation. But other kinds of rewards are more successful in motivating staff to higher levels of achievement. For example, Letts and his colleagues (1999) state that good pay “is more a protection against dissatisfaction than a source of motivation for the long term. Pay cannot substitute for the satisfaction of producing results” (p.123). A case study of a program to reduce staff turnover implemented by Fleet Boston Financial documented the very high impact of nonfinancial rewards complemented by reasonable pay increases (Nalbantian and Szostak 2004).

This article focuses on intrinsic awards and proceeds in two parts. The first explores the range of these awards. Hereafter these are called Professional Development Grants (PDGs). I think it likely that most readers will find some of their purposes novel. The second part outlines a practical structure for administering PDGs. In preparing this post I have consulted with three think tanks that I consider well-managed about their current practices and their ideas for improving them. The think tanks are: the Urban Institute, a very large (450 staff), 50-year old think tank in Washington; the Results for Development Institute, a mid-sized (125 staff), 10-year old think tank also in Washington but working exclusively in transition and developing countries; and, the Institute for Urban Economics, a small (40 staff), 20-year old organization in Moscow. Below these are referred to as participating think tanks.+

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This document is a part of the new OTT Best Practices Series. If you would like to submit a piece on best practices for research and policy institutes, please get in touch.

About the author:

Raymond Struyk:  Senior manager and policy analyst in the fields of social assistance, housing policy and mortgage finance and has extensive policy formulation and program evaluation experience.

Read more from: Raymond Struyk