From IWU Magazine, Fall 2011
Melissa Van Dyke ’99 engages the people side of business
as president of Incentive Research Foundation.
Story by NICOLE TRAVIS ’11
Van Dyke helps companies reward their workers.
Melissa (Arms) Van Dyke ’99 can’t help but consider her job rewarding. As president
of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF), her work is centered on helping others
receive the appropriate rewards for their work.
“Recognizing employees is one of the most important things organizations and managers
can do,” Melissa says. That means that formalities such as salaries and vacation days
simply aren’t enough to demonstrate appreciation for the work that employees are performing
every day. For this reason, companies rely on information from the IRF as they create
programs to stimulate employee engagement and recognize outstanding performance.
What those programs mean for employees is acknowledgment in the form of non-cash rewards,
such as travel and merchandise awards for top performers, and interpersonal recognition.
In its 20 years of experience, the foundation has devoted $2 million in research to
understanding and harnessing the power of incentives and motivation.
“From a manager and employee perspective, we all want to be a part of programs and
organizations that energize and engage us,” Melissa said. “From an organizational
standpoint, no company can afford to invest in any tool that it can’t readily optimize.
The same is true of investments in human capital.”
Before joining the IRF as president last March, Melissa, who lives in St. Louis with
her husband Todd and children Conor (5) and Maya (2), was a managing consultant of
employee engagement practice at Maritz, where she also held leadership positions in
solution management, product development and business technology solution management.
In 2007, Incentive magazine recognized her as a “rising star in the incentive industry.” Her career
in the industry began immediately following her graduation from Illinois Wesleyan,
when she accepted a position as a management consultant at Ernst & Young.
“I became interested in the people side of business when, as a consultant, I saw the
profound impact that employee engagement could have on the success of major business
and technology projects,” Melissa says. But she also saw the “enlightening” effect
of such engagement on the lives of employees themselves. They’re people she hasn’t
forgotten since, “from the seasoned sales executive who found new direction after
building a land-mine victim prosthetic as part of a team-building exercise on an incentive
trip to the single mother who supplied her son’s first apartment with all the necessary
items using gift points she received from her organization’s reward program.”
But helping others enjoy the fruits of their labor helps Melissa appreciate her own
as well. “I really enjoy that on any given day I could be working with the media,
speaking at a conference, meeting with sponsors, speaking with researchers or finalizing
financials,” she says of the varied facets of her everyday work.
This kind of appreciation and enthusiasm for her work is surprising considering that
Melissa had never heard of the incentive industry at the time of her college graduation.
Still, that didn’t mean she wasn’t prepared to enter it. The major in economics that
she paired with another in international studies familiarized her with the research
methodologies that now play a major role in her work at the IRF. She has also drawn
on her Illinois Wesleyan study-abroad experiences in Japan, Kenya and the U.K. while
organizing IRF Incentive Travel Programs.
But there’s been a great deal of on-the-job learning as well, especially in light
of recent world events that have affected trends in incentive and motivation programs.
The economic crisis, for one, did not spare the $46 billion industry.
“Like all industries,” Melissa says, “the downturn forced the incentive industry to
sharpen its focus and its tools,” although canceled programs and trips cost it millions
of dollars at the outset. Now, however, cross-organizational collaboration and other
improvements have assisted with its recovery.
Since redirecting its course in America’s new economic landscape, the IRF has gotten
back to business, settling comfortably into its role as a meeting point between industry
performance and academia. The result has been unparalleled research, such as a recent
study on corporate-sponsored wellness incentive programs and employee health trends.
As with any other incentive program, the study found, the benefits are twofold: Employees
are rewarded for engaging in healthier behaviors while enjoying the advantages of
good health and companies save on healthcare costs on top of gaining the work of healthy
“Findings like these help organizations optimize their investments in human capital
and ensure that individuals who participate in the program actually find it motivational,”
Melissa says. While this is only one example of the IRF’s work, all of the organization’s
research points to one essential finding regardless of trends in the industry: “Recognizing
and rewarding people for their work will never become less important.”
To visit the Incentive Research Foundation’s website, click here.