Two Stories About Motivating People

by Joan Garry

Two stories, one lesson. One about the power of flowers and the other about a donor so rich he had his own zip code. What’s the lesson?

Two stories. One lesson.

Today I offer you two stories. Very different and both true. They have something in common.

The first one is the story of a simple thing I did to motivate my board. You can do the same thing to motivate your board.

The second is the story of how I once motivated a million dollar donor.


During my Executive Director days, just before a board meeting, my assistant and I went to a very nice flower shop. We bought 20 beautiful flowers – each unique – and a vase.

At the end of the board meeting, I took a few minutes, went around the room one by one, and handed each board member a flower. As I did this, I identified one very specific contribution that person had made to the work of the organization.

Yes, it’s true. That task was way easier for some than others. But I could legitimately think of one thing for everyone. For those board members who fell into the “dead weight” category, it was very hard. But I managed.

Boards always divide into three groups, “the high performers,”  “the people who will do what you ask,” and “dead weight.” A good board finds each group to be about a third of the total.

Then I asked them to place their flower into the vase. It was a beautiful bouquet – really interesting and unique.

The metaphor was clear. My job was done. And the board absolutely loved it.

The outcome of this exercise was pretty interesting.

The high performers felt appreciated and the ‘dead weight’ board members probably felt a little guilty (some of them anyway.) I tried to be even handed but the comments must have felt different.

But it was the middle group that felt the real impact. Within a week, two board members who didn’t usually initiate conversations with me called. Each of them offered to do something. Without being asked!

One finally offered to broker a donor lunch I’d been hoping for. The other volunteered to serve on the strategic planning committee. She’d been asked and I thought she would add great value but she said two committees were too much. All of a sudden she’d had a change of heart.

By openly showing my appreciation, I was able to move several of my middle group of board members into high performers.

You can do the same thing to motivate your board.


This donor was so rich (how rich was he?) that his house had his own zip code. He was one of those donors who went MIA quite a bit. Of course we did outreach but typically got radio silence.

It was the eve of our biggest event of the year as well as a board meeting. Not much pressure. The hotel gave me the nicest suite – I guess we were the biggest hotel customer that weekend. I invited senior staff and the Board Chair up for a board meeting dress rehearsal and a glass of wine.

The suite phone rings. The rich donor’s private plane has just landed at the airport.  Can we arrange for seats for him and his guest? And can we arrange for a suite to be ready for him in about 30 minutes? Absolutely, I tell him. I thank him for coming and say that I look forward to seeing him.

We make all the necessary calls. All the suites are booked. And I am in the nicest one.  There is no question what needs to happen. And there isn’t much time. Certainly not enough for housekeeping. The group feverishly helps me to pack. It was like an I Love Lucy episode. One board member goes meticulously through each bathroom (I think there were three) and folds the toilet paper in that triangle shape we all know.  He is masterful.

We arrange with the front desk to have me moved and to have our donor assigned to the room formerly known as my suite. I come out of the elevator. I can see the donor heading from one direction. I do a quick about face so he does not see me and my rollerboard. I check into my smaller room, quite pleased with myself.

My phone rings. Midnight. It’s him. He sounds odd (odder than usual.) Can I meet him for a drink in the lobby in an hour? You bet, I say. I get out of bed, change out of my pajamas and head to the bar.

The donor is waiting. You gave up your room for me, he said. He remembered the extension they had given him when he called from the airport. He looked upset.

There was a big long pause. I had no idea what he would say next.

No one at any organization I support – maybe no one at all – has ever done something that nice for me.

And then he pledged three million dollars to our organization.


So, what lessons do you take from these two stories? Do you see ways to motivate your board or donors? Let me know in the comments below.

18 thoughts on “Two Stories About Motivating People”

  1. My takeaway? The protagonist in both cases goes the extra mile to do what seems like the right thing. Not knowing exactly what [if anything] would result, but knowing that any result could only be “good.” Going The Extra Mile is a good thing. (Side note: I have it on good authority that had Joan not eaten the Andes Mint left on her pillow before vacating the suite, the rich guy would have pledged another mil.)

  2. Think globally. Act locally. But most importantly, make it personal. Very personal.
    Show that you are aware of each “I” in your “team.”.
    Per Martin Buber, make sure that you have an I/thou relationship with each person. An “I/it” relationship never works.
    Be nice to everybody. As much as possible. Even when it’s hard to do.

  3. It was some time ago so I can’t be sure whether or not I consumed the mint. I believe we passed on turn down service that evening; thus not likely I had yet received the aforementioned mint. But yes, I love the “Going the Extra Mile is a Good Thing.” And you are hilarious.

  4. Quite a different comment from the previous one and equally true. Thanks Bob. Be nice to everybody. Because you should. And because you never know.

  5. Joan, both are inspiring stories that remind us that relationships are never transactions. Going above and beyond in small or big ways with others can pay lasting dividends, but don’t conceive of them that way. Keep it personal, real and simple.
    Here in Washington DC, some speak of chits like they are money in the bank. They are not. One does not have a “favor bank,” since that reduces the personal to the transactional and inauthentic. Others can often see through it quickly.
    It also reminds me of the humility you and other leaders bring to your roles, so that it’s never all about you. It’s about us, it’s about a cause, and it’s about the mission.
    Thanks for sharing these key moments. They are both teachable and memorable.

  6. Being flexible and proactive is necessary in all stages and walks of life. Toilet paper folding is a true Art! Being committed to a cause is awesome when you are part of wonderful group of people!

  7. Spoken from the man who did us proud that night mastering the art of toilet paper folding. If your current gig doesn’t work out, Scott Tissue would snap you up in a flash!

  8. Wow, my takeaway from this wonderful post is that it’s about seeing people as individuals – each unique human being as perfectly imperfect – and coming from a place of nimbleness and gratitude. This was a great reminder to be human and humane in the midst of all the hectic pressure! Thank you!

  9. Julia – Thanks for this lovely comment and for subscribing. “Perfectly imperfect.” I like that a lot. Most of us in nonprofit are racing so fast to create a more just world that we don’t take that extra step to be nice to our stakeholders. And thanks for subscribing too! Hope you find other content valuable. Welcome!

  10. Joan, thank you for sharing. Sometimes a good deed feels like Charlie Brown says, nobody ever notices. Good things happen to Good People, and your stories prove that. Lorrie

  11. Joan, I want to thank you for your inspiring writing. I am new to your blog and new to managing a non-profit. We have a long way to grow to have the fortune of hosting an event where a donor will fly in on his own jet. Your sharing the story lets me know it can be done. Your blog is helping me understand the many ways to reach our goals with constructive motivation. Thank you!

  12. I worried that my private jet donor story may be offputting but hoped that linked with the other would bring out accessible common threads. Your kind words tell me that my mission was accomplished. Thanks for reading! And commenting!

  13. There are ways to motivating the lukewarm and the frozen solid board or committee members. I like your way. It’s subtle and invigorating and a nod/push to action.
    As for the private donor story… Takeaway is doing something totally unexpected of you is a good way to show the donor you care not only about their monetary donation but also about their wellbeing, even if it’s at your expense. That alone will touch anybody’s heart or soul. Generosity begets GENEROSITY.

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