nonprofit culture strategy

This nonprofit culture strategy post is part 3 in a 3-part series. Read part 1 and part 2.

There are three pillars of transformation required of philanthropically-funded nonprofits that want to thrive in the post-disruption, post-COVID economy. In the first article of this three-part series, I explored why digital transformation must be an immediate priority and looked at some ways to get there. In the second article, I explored the importance of building a donor experience that resonates with today’s constituents. 

Let’s move now to the third and final pillar: nonprofit culture strategy. 

  1. Digital 
  2. Donor experience
  3. Culture

Pillar #3—No More Othering: Your Nonprofit Culture Strategy in 2021 and Beyond

Your culture will make or break fundraising success, especially over the long term. As Peter Drucker famously said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” meaning a powerful and empowering culture is a sure route to organizational success.

For years now, there’s been a powerful evolving discussion in the social benefit sector around “culture of philanthropy” and why it’s so critically important to fundraising success. Some of the seminal work has been done by the Walter and Evelyn Haas, Jr. Fund in the United States and the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy in the U.K. 

Many others, including me, have weighed in on the topic. Here’s a white paper from the Veritus Group I find particularly on point and an excellent one from Simone Joyaux

For me, a culture based on “love of humanity” is a no-brainer within a sector focused on social benefit. If you have one, you’ll be stronger and better positioned to connect with donors and all of your constituents. See here for more.

In recent years another type of culture argument has emerged around community-centric vs. donor-centric fundraising. 

A community-centric philosophy is seen as a way to advance equity through fundraising; this has certain relevance in today’s conversations around equity and equality. 

In a nutshell, the movement aims to “prioritize the entire community over individual organizations, foster a sense of belonging and interdependence, present our work not as individual transactions but holistically, and encourage mutual support between nonprofits.” 

This is also hard to argue with.

Developing a loving, empowering, all-embracing culture that meets everyone’s needs is a balancing act. It’s one that requires focus, introspection, extrospection, and fierce honesty. 

How do you work on a strategy of building a culture that not only promotes goodness but also does no harm? One that looks at every contributor to your mission as indisputably worthy? 

Let’s look at the third pillar of your post-disruption nonprofit strategy for today’s and tomorrow’s novel economy

Be Aware of Different Types of Othering, Especially Donor/Non-Donor

Being cognizant of “othering” is critically important as you reflect on and endeavor to transition your culture to one of belonging. 

A culture of donors vs. non-donors is toxic, as is one of donors vs. staff. Management vs. non-management. Line staff vs. administration. White vs. person of color. Male vs. female. Old vs. young. Wealthy vs. struggling. This is true of any other type of systemic, biased thinking that gets in the way of true social benefit, equity, justice, and unity of purpose.

I’m not suggesting you stop being kind to donors. While there’s a movement afoot to shut the door on donor-centered fundraising, I’m among those preferring we not throw this particular baby out with the dirty bathwater of deeply-ingrained bigotry that poisons society as a whole. 

Many problems poison society, and that’s why you’re in the fundraising business. You still have money to raise, and years of testing and research shows donors are central to your mission—not just a means to an end. On top of that, donor-centered fundraising probably works even better than we credit it for; just not many nonprofits truly embody a donor-centric practice (see here and here.)

I’m suggesting more than ever you listen to and be relevant to donors, because donors matter. What they’re thinking and feelingright nowmatters. What they value matters. And today all of this is shaped by the events of recent history. 

Now, in particular, it’s important to survey and interview donors so you can learn from them directly about what is keeping them up at night. If you just guess, how can you truly align your work with their interests?

Before embarking on any donor-facing strategy, ask yourself:

  • How will this align with current donor values to create a better supporter experience?
  • How will this establish trust that we fulfill on our mission?
  • How will this establish trust that we care about our donors?
  • How will this communicate renewed vision amidst a time of rapid change?
  • How will this show empathy for all our constituents?
  • How will this communicate an authentic purpose and empowered culture, internally and externally?
  • How will this incorporate new demands for safety, both physical, psychological, and emotional?
  • How will this connect people and build community?
  • How will this strategy support, or undermine, the organization’s vision, mission, and values?

Nonprofit Culture Strategy Transformation Action Steps

Generally, nonprofit supporters are looking for connection and community; this can be accomplished through a culture of philanthropy (aka “love of humanity”). 

It feels good to be among a group of like-minded people who care about the things you care about. Even if folks come from different walks of life, they can become united through commonality of purpose. And nothing kills “othering” quicker than finding how you are alike, not different.  

Here are some action steps you can take to transform your nonprofit culture strategy:

  1. Focus on building both internal and external relationships based on shared values. If you want to unlock your competitive advantage within the current social zeitgeist, you must construct a relationship-building machine. For the fundraiser, this means building a donor love and loyalty plan that connects supporters (1) with multiple people representing your organization and (2) via multiple channels so no one is overlooked or diminished based on their communication preferences. Begin by getting to know your colleagues better so you can invite them to interact with donors and work that into your plan. 
  2. Show your humanity every chance you get. Just meeting once with someone or sending them an email is not going to make them a friend. Treat your donors, staff members, board members, and volunteers like human beings, not like donors, staff, or volunteers. Retire the labels; stick with the underlying values you all share.
  3. Show kindness and warmth in your donor-facing communications. Eschew lectures, educational pieces, self-congratulatory prose, and corporate speak. If you want donors to take notice when you send a fundraising appeal, write directly to them. Use the word “you” a lot; it’s a substitute for using their nameand we all respond to our names. Write a letter your donor will want to save or share with others, much as they would a really personal, creative birthday or holiday card you send them. Also, remember being human means showing up repeatedly, demonstrating you care about donors for more than their wallets. So don’t just send one appeal, one thank you, and then nothing until the next time you need something.  Make yours a culture of showing up just to be kind.
  4. Innovate in how you reach people. Different generations and cultures communicate in different ways. Learn your own constituent preferences. Social media can help you reach out more broadly; it isn’t called “social” for nothing. Using text messaging can help you reach GenX and Millennials, 30% of whom prefer to give by smartphone. Using peer-to-peer fundraising can help you find new donors you’d otherwise never have reached. Stop thinking of these as ancillary strategies; move them to the top of your priority list if you want to expand your circle to be more inclusive. Just make sure what you’re offering up through any channel is a generous, meaningful gift to your constituents. As Brian Solis reminds us, “Always pay it forward and never forget to pay it back.” Generosity begets generosity.
  5. Be useful. One of the things found in “Bright Spots” from the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund was that organizations living and breathing a culture of philanthropy were places where people walking the halls would not just ask “How are you doing?” but also “How can I be helpful to you today?” Research shows being of service goes a long way towards reducing stress and anxiety; it can have an ameliorating effect on every individual with whom you interact, internally and externally. One way to build a habit of being useful is to focus on giving gifts rather than just asking for gifts. In other words, stop selling so much and start helping. People want stuff that helps them. That answers their questions. That solves their problems.
  6. Be ethical. This should go without saying, but it’s something too easy to lose sight of in the face of a potentially transformational gift. Before seeking out or accepting a gift, assess as objectively as possible whether the donor’s values align with your organization’s mission, vision, and values.

Closing Thoughts: Time to Reset

How can you turn toward or lean into “philanthropy” across the board?

Fundraising is a servant to philanthropy. It exists to meet noble ends. To succeed in meeting these ends through fundraising, you’re going to need to reset the all-embracing culture within which your nonprofit operates. And in 2021 and beyond, this will also require resetting your digital and donor experience strategies as described above. 

Where to begin? 

I’m reminded of a practice in Judaism called teshuvah. It’s commonly practiced during the high holy days as a turning toward holiness and compassion and away from zealotry and intolerance. 

I sometimes think of philanthropy as a sort of religion—“a cultural system of behaviors, practices, and ethics” with love of humanity at its core. 

Within your nonprofit or the social benefit sector as a whole, philanthropy is bigger than any one group of people or certainly groups within those groups.

How might you turn your organization more towards holiness or “wholeness?”

This is a complex topic, but I often find the best way to begin is to start with yourself. As the fundraiser, you can’t do everything. But you can do something. And that’s what you must do. 

Here are a few thoughts as to where to start.

Assess Which Changes Donors Appreciated Last Year

What have you learned over the past year about what people want and need? 

It may be that they really want to connect. Maybe they like hearing from you more than you imagined. 

When you called to ask how they were doing, they began to feel greater bonding with you. 

When you offered Zoom conversations, community-wide conference calls, online fireside chats, and other virtual events, they may have been willing to engage in ways you might not have envisioned. 

When you told them how much you appreciated them, they blushed, blossomed, and even sent in another donation. How can you sustain and build on these changes?

Actively Imagine New Possibilities

What new things might make sense given what you’ve learned? 

The McKinsey survey data referenced above suggest we’ve reached a tipping point for technological disruption of historic proportions, and that more changes will be required as things evolve. 

First consider what you want your strategies to accomplish. It will depend on where your targeted markets, prospective and current donors included, are in their journey. 

How much do they know about you and how do they feel about you? Is your strategic goal: (1) creating awareness; (2) building interest; (3) driving engagement, or (4) requesting investment? Where do you need to engage in strategic learning, individually and collectively, to move forward? 

Be a Change Agent

Try to find a need and fill it. This is what leaders like Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk excel at. Love them or hate them, there’s little doubt they are change agents. And since the world around you is changingyou can’t stop it!you must be a change agent as well.

How will you manage change at a pace that exceeds what you’ve been used to? And given the digitally-revolutionized zeitgeist in which we find ourselves, what technologies need to be executed and how? How can you humanize the conversation by embedding listening strategies (e.g., formal and informal feedback) to see your donors’ experience from their eyes? 

Continue to improve (iterate) and also to invent (innovate). Test new approaches, channels, formats, and ideas. Transcend status quo existence to shoot for the moon. 

In the post-disruption nonprofit economy, this will make sure you’re revealed as a true winner. Seize the day! 

Download this Culture of Philanthropy Checklist loaded with action tips to determine your organization’s nonprofit culture strategy.

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