Nonprofit organizations are important vehicles for change. Indeed, that is part of why they are accorded tax-exempt status. Some are components of a social safety net, providing food and shelter for those in need. Others are trying to advance a cause or protect something supporters value. In common, they all seek to “do good.”

What has always fascinated me is the reason why people are drawn to specific organizations – either as donors or volunteers. In the nonprofit world executives try to understand motivations because it helps us know how to channel someone’s interest. We want to make the experience a positive one so people remain engaged and their efforts help to propel the organization forward.

One person may be motivated by a need for status and want a prominent role. That person might be good as the chair of a gala fundraiser. Another person might be interested in raising her professional profile, so perhaps she would be a good Board candidate. We sometimes see people who associate with an organization to feed their ego and recognizing or awarding them for their contributions is a way to meet that need. But the one that I always find interesting is the person who has a personal connection to the cause.

Often personal commitments are borne out of tragedy. A good example is John Walsh. Most people know the name, but don’t know him based on his early career as a hotel executive. But if you are familiar with the name then you probably know that John’s son, Adam, was kidnapped and killed. He channeled his grief in a positive direction, creating and hosting America’s Most Wanted – a show that is credited with playing a role in the arrest of over 1,000 fugitives.

There are tons of stories like this one. A person is confronted with a disease, a death, an injustice – something that strikes them on a personal level, often causing a loss. I don’t begrudge the person who has such an experience and just wants to crawl under the covers and shut the world out. But sometimes those folks need a means of channeling their hurt in a positive direction and nonprofits are a way to channel grief toward social change.

It is important for nonprofit leaders to recognize that such a person is dealing with emotional issues. A good friend of mine is an attorney who specializes in helping ordinary people who have been harmed at the hands of corporations to hold them accountable. When we spoke recently, he recounted that he often has to balance the things he knows he needs to do to win a settlement or court victory with the things that individual family members (sometime next-of-kin) want to see happen to address their emotional need for justice. This is difficult for a lawyer, whose job is to be an advocate for the legal rights of his client.

We talked about his desire to introduce his clients – often after the settlement is reached – to the right nonprofit or philanthropic consultancy. This transition from a lawyer to a nonprofit is an important element of the healing process and gives that person a way to take action. Connecting a motivated volunteer, donor, or advocate to an organization that can embrace their interest and channel it into momentum on an issue they both agree on is the nonprofit definition of turning lemons into lemonade.