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Ambitions and Aspirations…

February 4, 2010

Several years ago I was invited to speak at a HR convention in a reputed multinational company. My talk was well appreciated and one of the HR managers present asked me how was it possible to motivate people in the NGO sector while it was challenging to retain highly qualified achievers in the private sector. He wanted to know what was it that the NGO sector was doing that they could learn from. As I travelled back to Saragur, I started to think whether this observation was indeed true. Are people truly different in these two sectors? Are the needs of people different? Can one deploy different motivation strategies to ensure that people do not leave?

I have been pondering on this question since then and have come up with my own favorite explanation. I feel that this is the closest that I can come to think of a substantial reason to explain people’s behaviors and their needs and how organizations can fulfill these needs.

I now believe that every individual, whether he is in the Private sector of in the Non-profit sector, is driven by 2 fundamental needs. For want of better terms I would like to call them ‘Ambition’ and ‘Aspiration’. Lest I sound judgmental, let me clarify that these are to be read as value neutral nouns. I would define ‘Ambition’ as the desire for a person for something for him or herself. Something, which he would want to possess on a personal level. It could be a title, more money, visibility, the latest laptop, a fancy car, a higher degree, anything that he would want for himself. ‘Aspiration’ for me would reflect what he would like to do for others – something that he desires to do for society and the community around him. Each of us carry these tendencies within us in different shades. While one may be more ambitious and have a lesser degree of aspirations; another could have large societal aspirations and minimal ambitions for himself. More of the first category gravitates towards the private sector while the second have a tendency to move towards the public and non-profit sectors. I am yet to meet someone who has only aspirations or wholly devoted to only his personal cause. The best of people in the non-profit sector nourish secret ambitions and would like to be known and constantly seek affirmation from their peers; while I have seen many a CEO who may seem to be devoted to his company’s bottom lines quietly do his bit to society without much fanfare. This balance of ambition and aspiration is critical for a person to stay back wherever he is working. If a non-profit fails to fulfill the ambitions (either expressed or discrete) of people who otherwise seem to be consumed by societal aspirations, they would eventually lose them. Similarly, merely fulfilling the ambitions of employees in a large private company is no guarantee to retain them. One needs to identify what his aspirations are and try and help meet them.

The real challenge for any HR management team vested with the responsibility of motivating and retaining their employees is to be able to work with the people and help them understand and articulate each of their ambitions and aspirations. One needs to help them get these reasonably fulfilled and met. Only when this happens can we be reasonably sure that our best people stay with us. This necessitates that non-profits pay attention to some of the unexpressed and hidden personal desires and needs of their people. Corporate employers need to devise different ways and means of getting the aspirational needs of their employees fulfilled through different social causes. Striking this balance could very well be the secret for sustaining and building large organizations whether they are in the private or in the public sector.


Categories: Musings
  1. March 15, 2011 at 7:30 am

    Dear Balu,
    Good and I liked it!
    I have been manging an NGO for the past 17 years and even today failing to understand people who come to work here. As you know there is a high labour turnover in NGOs, it is certainly a challenge to understand their ambitions and aspirations. Those who have higher shades of ambition are not suitable to NGOs and those who have higher shades of aspirations may not belong to organisations for profit. I think I must design a small test to find out from each aspirant who wishes to join us. Once I do it, I will let you know. We have tried something on similar lines before but have failed. After reading your article I am encouraged to try again.

  2. ManSa
    February 11, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    Balu..Excellent writing. I had to read twice to understand what you really meant. Strong presentation. Good !!!!

  3. Sandesh
    February 7, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Great to see this topic coming up for discussion.
    Some time back, when I was an MBA student, we had done a quick suvey to map the motivation factors in non profit sector under VILD’s guidance. However, it had some constraints of time, lack of motivation of fellow team mates and lack of cooperation from other NGOs. Now that the topic has come up again, why should not we do a proper study on this through VILD? May be we can do a start with SVYM employees themselves.


    Thanks for sharing the thoughts. I am sure, most of us have, at some point or the other, pondered over For profit Vs Non profit motivational factors. This could have been while thinking about ourselves or about the others.
    I think this is a very apt way of putting it down. We can certainly build on this and expand the thoughts.


  4. Balu
    February 5, 2010 at 2:38 am

    @ Chandra:

    I agree that Aspirations and Ambitions are time relational. The proportion of one to the other may vary depending on the time of entry, the duration of stay in an organization etc. It is not intended to be a static entity and will dynamically change with time and with the person getting these needs fulfilled. Man’s needs keep growing and one constantly keeps seeking to fulfilling them. That is why it is important to realise that these needs be periodically re-evaluated and reframed.


  5. Chandra
    February 4, 2010 at 4:59 pm

    Maslow’s and Herzberg’s Motivational theories may have some limitations. But they cannot be altogether set aside, particularly in the context of NGOs. Again in this context one has to understand “Aspiration” & “Ambition” in relation to “time” of entry into a NGO, ie is it at the beginning of his/her career or post career “fulfilments”. In the west NGO as an job opportunity is not much different from a private institution for the beginner. But it is not so in India.
    Yet, Balu’s theory adds to existing knowledge on HR area.

  6. Ankhagrass
    February 4, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Dear Balu,
    I guess this is a sound and satisfactory explanation.
    I wish to share something with you:
    At NBRC we have more than 100 students and they as usual had divided opinions on single subjects. However, we could this time get organized and present our points to UGC review committee which had come to NBRC for assessment. I was feeling that my education at SVYM has helped me in organizing this huge WAKE UP event. NBRC will not be the same from today. This reflects larger aspirations of the students who want to attain it and are working in positive mind set to achieve this.
    Hence, I am glad that I read your thought today, which justifies mine.


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