The Y Proves that a Little Recognition Goes a Long Way

Groundbreaking study demonstrates that the promise of social recognition can significantly spur action

The Y Proves that a Little Recognition Goes a Long Way

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CHICAGO, March 11, 2019 –- It's an old notion—a little recognition goes a long way—but the YMCA of the USA and researchers put this to the test during a three-year research project at the YMCA of The Triangle to determine the impact of social recognition on decision making and well-being. The results, published today as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, found that the promise of social recognition (with permission) resulted in a 23 percent increase in membership usage of the YMCA over a one-month period.

This social recognition process—referred to as "nudging" in policy circles—describes behavior change that takes place after a non-monetary incentive—in this case, recognition. Social recognition interventions have long been thought to be a motivator in driving change, but the effect on people's overall behavior and well-being remained unclear until the Y proved it in a real-world setting.

"The concept of recognition has been around for many years but showing that it changes behavior is only half the story: we need tools to understand whether such interventions are a socially efficient alternative to monetary incentives once people's general well-being is taken into account," said Luigi Butera, Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Business School. "Proving a long-thought concept to be true has applications across many industries, but for nonprofits who are always looking for inexpensive ways to motivate members, donors and volunteers, this could be a game-changer."

To find out how social recognition works within the YMCA setting, researchers conducted a field experiment with members of the YMCA of the Triangle in North Carolina. Y members who opted-in to the study randomly received social recognition and a $2 per-visit donation made in their name to the YMCA of the Triangle. At the end of a month, an email was sent to randomly selected participants recognizing how many times these members visited the Y as well as how much money was donated in their name. The study also elicited the monetary value members placed on being (or not being) socially recognized for all levels of future attendance. The majority of members would pay to be recognized if they expected to go to the YMCA more than four times a month.

The results found the promise of social recognition increased behavior, resulting in a 23 percent uptick in membership usage. Importantly people were, on average, willing to pay to receive recognition, showing that such recognition led to an overall increase in well-being for those in the study.

"It's a long-held notion that social recognition is a zero-sum game, i.e., if one person wins another one must lose. But that may not be true on average, and thanks to the Y's capacity to let us test our theory in a field setting, we found that formal social recognition to those who opt-in is a valuable member benefit. When we generalize the well-being effects to the rest of the YMCA of the Triangle population, the results on well-being become negative, however. This shows the benefit of allowing people to opt-in to such recognition programs," added Robert Metcalfe, Assistant Professor, Boston University. "Recognition is relatively easy to replicate and implement in other settings and can have a big impact on everything from membership engagement to donor relations."

The Y will use social recognition in two ways, to further enhance the Y membership experience in programs that improve health, develop children and teens and enhance communities and to improve fundraising and volunteer efforts.

"Working with the researchers to help prove these long-held notions really lends credibility to the results, especially as nonprofits look for new ways maximize resources," said Maria-Alicia Serrano, Senior Director, Research, Analytics and Insights, YMCA of the USA. "From a membership and a fundraising perspective, this study reinforces how crucial it is to create real, authentic connections with our members, volunteers and donors who come to the Y on a regular basis."

"It was the YMCA of the Triangle's pleasure to participate in this study. The findings and implications for organizations like the Y are significant as we work to help people get healthier and improve the community," said Tony Campione, Chief Experience Officer, YMCA of the Triangle. "At the Y, relationships and connections matter. Data from this study clarifies just how much."

The reference for the paper is: Butera, L., Metcalfe, R., Morrison, W. & Taubinsky, D. (2019). The Deadweight Loss of Social Recognition. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 25637. Cambridge: MA. Link:


Emily Waldren
YMCA of the USA
[email protected]

About the Y

The Y is one of the nation’s leading nonprofits strengthening communities through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. Across the U.S., 2,700 Ys engage 22 million men, women and children – regardless of age, income or background – to nurture the potential of children and teens, improve the nation’s health and well-being, and provide opportunities to give back and support neighbors. Anchored in more than 10,000 communities, the Y has the long-standing relationships and physical presence not just to promise, but to deliver, lasting personal and social change. 

About the YMCA of the Triangle

The YMCA of the Triangle is a 501(c)3 charity that has served Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill and the broader region in North Carolina, for more than 160 years. Today, the YMCA of the Triangle serves over 230,000 people and operates 17 facility branches. The YMCA of the Triangle also operates three overnight camps: Camp Kanata in Wake Forest, NC and Camp Sea Gull and Camp Seafarer on the NC coast. The Y strengthens the community through programs that support youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. In 2018, the YMCA of the Triangle’s Annual Campaign provided more than $8 million to people in need. Visit to learn more.