Wikipedia is a fascinating 21st century innovation. With over 38 million articles in more than 250 different languages, it is an undeniably useful global asset. This free-access, free-content, user-edited Internet encyclopedia is so culturally influential that the Wikipedia page for any given topic is usually one of the first search results on Google.  To keep up with their reputation, the editorial staff actively monitors attempts to corrupt a page and corrects inconsistencies within a matter of seconds. The enormous cost of labor alone would threaten the viability of Wikipedia if the non-profit had to pay its staff, but contributions are made almost entirely by volunteers. So, if such a valuable resource is run by people who work for free, why do they do it?

Research presented at the Behavioral Science and Policy Association conference in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2016 asked this very question. Jana Gallus, a postdoctoral fellow in the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard, along with a group of veteran editors at Wikipedia, designed an award to honor newcomers who made valuable contributions to the German-language Wikipedia during their first month on staff. They purposely left the criteria for receiving this award, named an “Edelweiss with Star,” vague so that they could randomly distribute it to a group of active editors and compare their performance to that of their peers. The winners received a badge on their profile pages accompanied by an explanation of the honor, and a list of recipients each month was displayed on the Wikipedia page for the award.

After one month, the retention rate of new editors who received an Edelweiss with Star was 20 percent higher than editors who received nothing.  And this wasn’t just true of the most prolific editors who modified upwards of 100 articles per day. Administering awards to new contributors increased retention across all levels of activity in the first month after the award date. Two months after receiving the award, the retention rate of these new editors was still 14% higher than the unrecognized editors, which suggests that the reaction to receiving the Edelweiss with Star was not just a fleeting emotion.

This study tells us that understanding how individuals value status and reputation is crucial to decoding motivation. Especially for volunteerism, finding effective ways to recognize people for their work that do not conflict with their intrinsic motivation can be tricky. In the case of Wikipedia, one potential problem is that the types of people who contribute might actually be more extrinsically motivated than other kinds of volunteers. That is, they choose to contribute to articles because of the public nature of the Internet, and the international recognition of Wikipedia. If more outwardly ambitious people respond better to positive affirmation, then we might find it hard to extend this research to less visible volunteer projects.

Instead of public recognition, Gallus credits the success of this experiment primarily to the effect of identification with a community. That is, the symbolic recognition of receiving Edelweiss with Star made editors feel like they were part of an exclusive group. Although contributions that editors make to Wikipedia pages are public, no one gets direct credit for authorship. In the study, only about 6% of recipients publicly displayed their award on their user pages, so we can interpret this as an indication that Wikipedia editors responded well to private recognition rather than celebrity.

So, what does Gallus’s research tell us about motivating volunteerism more broadly? Since this study addresses the problem of high turnover in volunteer organizations once people have already made the first move to contribute, the key takeaway is not how to attract volunteers, but how to keep them. In organizations with a steep learning curve, the cost of high turnover is problematic. Since people deeply desire validation and a sense of ownership over their work, simple recognition is a low cost way to give volunteers a stake in the success of the venture. Although this might not seem like a new concept, the challenge lies in understanding what recognition means for each organization’s particular context, and establishing a community in which volunteers want to belong. Like Gallus did with veteran editors at Wikipedia, bringing the core group of committed stakeholders together to talk about why they have stuck with the organization is a good first step.