6 Secrets to Improve Your Nonprofit Culture

nonprofit culture

Nonprofits tend to wring their hands a lot about fundraising. 

  • We don’t have enough.
  • It’s so difficult.
  • Our board won’t help.
  • Our staff isn’t sufficiently skilled.
  • It’s so distasteful.
  • It’s a necessary evil.
  • We have more important things to do with our resources. 

All of this hand-wringing comes from a perspective that fundraising is about money (yuck!), and nonprofit pursuits are ‘above that.’ 

Okay, let’s get two things straight.

  1. Fundraising is not about money; it’s about outcomes.
  2. Fundraising is not an end in and of itself; it exists within a broader context of mission, vision and values, and is a means to serve those ends

1. Understand the Encompassing Role of ‘Development’

Development, which comprises both marketing and fundraising, is your management tool to create valued outcomes and reach noble ends by unlocking passionate philanthropy. 

I see the role of ‘development’ being one of values clarification, elucidation and connection. All of your development strategies are designed to help:

  1. Uncover the values people have.
  2. Find people who share those values your organization enacts. 
  3. Make the match – connecting like-minded people with opportunities to express their values through philanthropy.

It’s not a one shot transaction, but a multi-step, transformative process where you take some raw ingredients, develop them further, nurture them and create something so compelling others want to join you in your endeavor. Once you find the values intersection, fundraising is simple.

But it won’t happen absent a values-based nonprofit culture of philanthropy.

2. Define Your Values 

What are the guiding principles of your organization? You can’t simply make these up; you must discover your own truths. 

For example, if I ask an executive director to list the organization’s values, I’ll get a bunch of words (e.g., respect, integrity, justice, diversity, communication, excellence…).  These are more idealized virtues than values. They’re leadership espousing what they think their values should be. Alas, values aren’t simply good intentions. Values are the talk you actually walk.

Which is why I like to ask nonprofit staff to describe the organization’s values. Because that’s where you’ll get your reality check. A case in point is Enron, which in its 2000 annual report listed respect, integrity, communication and excellence as core values. The action of leadership, however, showed a culture infused with greed and pride.

Not surprisingly, employees decide how to act based not upon an organization’s statement of ethics or values as expressed in a manual or on the intranet, but on how they see others behave.

ACTION TIP: To uncover your organization’s true values, here’s an exercise to try. I learned it from Jay Wilkinson, CEO of Firespring.

The “Reality Show Exercise”

  • Ask everyone to write down names of three people in your organization you’d choose to go on a reality show and represent your organization. They’ll follow them around with a camera for three weeks.
  • Now write down the words/attributes that come to mind when you think of those people.
  • Then write those words on a white board.
  • Narrow your list down to 10 – 15 words.
  • Survey all participants to narrow your list down to your five most important words.

True values must meet these criteria:

  • They distinguish you from others.
  • You’re obsessed by it.
  • It will live on.
  • You’d sacrifice money to protect it.
  • You can live it every day.

3. Build Your Team around Your Values 

Hire to your values — first for nonprofit culture fit, then for skills. You can train/learn skills, but culture and values are deeply ingrained.

Regularly talk about your values with team members. Ask people how they’re doing, and if the culture is a good fit. If not, why not? Be transparent and open with people about what’s working/not working. Especially with new employees, this is an important way to help folks get to know your nonprofit culture and values. It’s also an important way for you to get feedback and breaths of fresh air.

4. Live Your Values

Incorporate values feedback into your board and staff meetings. I used to have a ‘rose giving’ ceremony on the agenda for my development team meetings. Staff would offer virtual roses to others on the team who had exemplified our values during the previous week(s). These would be written into the ‘meeting memorandum’ that was made a part of our permanent record, and shared with the executive director.

Consider a Values Hall of Fame to which managers can elect staff from across your organization. Consider staff who’ve gone the extra mile in walking your values talk. Perhaps they often go out of their way to help others. Or they offer extraordinary customer service. Or they’ve come up with a creative way to enact a particular value. Announce the inductees at an organization-wide staff meeting. 

5. Enable Donors to Join You

Donors also have values; sometimes they’ve nowhere to express them meaningfully. That’s where you come in. As a values broker. Or what I like to call a philanthropy facilitator.

Once you’ve found the folks who share the values your organization lives and breathes, you’re ready to make a significant match. Remember, ‘development’ is not merely a transaction. Done well, it’s a process that’s transformational – both for your organization and for your donor.

Your organization gives donors the opportunity to see their values and visions enacted. Through donors’ monetary support, their values take shape in actions. Your job, then, is simply to help people be the people they want to be. You help donors become heroes!

Philanthropy facilitation requires bringing development and program staff together. Everyone must be on board to unlock passionate philanthropy. As the fundraising team brings in revenue to sustain programs, the programs can offer important stories to the fundraising team. This process is an important part of building a relationship with donors.

Donors need to know their contributions matter. Simply sending a thank you letter does not accomplish this. You must report back to donors on the impact of their philanthropy. And this is impossible absent input from program staff doing the work. Philanthropists are investors, and they want consistent, regular feedback on how their investment is doing.

6. Embrace Philanthropy, Not Fundraising

“Philanthropy” is translated from Greek to mean “love of humankind” or, per Bob Peyton, Founder of the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, philanthropy means “voluntary action for the public good.” These values-based definitions capture the true heart of social benefit organizations, and of the donors who make their work possible. 

Fundraising evokes ‘money,’ which is a taboo subject in our nonprofit culture. It evokes negative connotations. When I ask board and staff what the ‘F’ word brings to mind, answers range from “scary” to “rude” to “yucky.” Yet when I ask what people associate with the “P” word, answers are overwhelmingly positive: “good,” “inspiring,” and even “necessary.”

Review: Elements of a Healthy Nonprofit Culture of Philanthropy 

Try to reframe how you think of your work as being ‘social benefit,’ rather than ‘nonprofit.’ The former captures what you do and why you do it. The latter simply states what you are not.

  1. A healthy social benefit culture begins with your why and your how, and getting clarity on mission and vision.
  2. The next essential step is clarifying your values.
  3. The final step is to cultivate shared values. 

Walk the talk everywhere, both inside and outside your organization. Your passionate, mission-directed staff deserve to be valued. So do your donors who give freely and voluntarily. Because they come from a place of love. They believe. And their positive behaviors deserve to be celebrated and rewarded.

Fundraising is a privilege that is earned whenever and wherever organizations are making a positive impact for the public good. Fundraising is also a responsibility, because without it those who rely on social benefit organizations would be worse off, and the world would be a sadder and poorer place. 

Want to do more to unlock passionate philanthropy? You may find The 7 Clairification Keys useful. It’s filled with clairifying worksheets and exercises around (1) Values. (2) Stories. (3) Brand. (4) Social Channels. (5) Support Constituencies. (6) Engagement Objectives. (7) Resources and Systems. All towards making you more effective in doing your important work!

Check out our State of the Nonprofit Workplace 2019 Infographic to see how the average nonprofit employee feels right now about the workplace culture, benefits, perks and other qualities they’re currently experiencing.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.
Claire Axelrad
By |2019-07-12T14:17:22-04:00July 15th, 2019|Nonprofit Management, Philanthropy|

One Comment

  1. Jason July 16, 2019 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Great post! I’ll definitely be sharing this one.

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