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On this episode of Bloomerang TV, Jamie Levy of JD Levy & Associates joins us to discuss how you can promote a “culture of philanthropy” to your board members. You can watch the full episode here:

Full Transcript:

Steven: Hey there! Welcome to this week’s episode of Bloomerang TV. Thanks for joining us. My name is Steven and I’m the host of this week’s episode, as always. I’m really excited because I’ve got a friend joining us, a local guy out of Indiana where we’re at as well. He’s Jaime Levy. He’s the President, CEO and the Chief Vision Officer over at JD Levy and Associates. Hey, Jaime, how’s it going?

Jaime: Good. Hello. Thank you.

Steven: Yeah, thanks for being here. In addition to running all that stuff, you’re also faculty at Indiana University. You’re at the School of Philanthropy over there. What are you us to these days over at your consultancy there?

Jaime: Most of the work that we focus on is all long-term sustainability of nonprofit organizations on one side of the spectrum, and on the other side of the spectrum, we work with grant-makers and individual philanthropists just in helping them realize how to create community impact and then kind of the scope in between. So we get to live on both sides of that equation which is a real blessing.

Steven: Very cool, very cool. And one of the things I like about you guys and you specifically is something you talk about a lot is this idea of a “culture of philanthropy” and I’ve seen that term kind of pop up on other places.

Jaime: Right.

Steven: And I know other people have too. Could you kind of define what that means? Because there’s a lot of people talking about culture and creating a culture of philanthropy but what does that actually mean? What does that look like?

Jaime: Sure. I think to really unpack that you have to go back to what’s our reference point for philanthropy. Using it in a pure sense it’s love of man and how we express that in the nonprofit sector and really in civil society and that is one, on a spectrum from how we use our resources to how we give of our gifts and our passion and our time, and then how we become an advocate and release our spirit to the things that we’re wired to be about.

And we talk about cultures of philanthropy. It’s really understanding that holistic perspective, instead of seeing these in colors rather beginning to view them holistically and how do we help organizations and how do we help people? If I love cats as I say all the time, how do I become holistically integrated to do everything I can in making the world better for the thing that I’m passionate about? Which means that I’ve got to begin to understand myself as a whole and organizationally speaking, when we think about culture, you know the norms, the traditions, the practices that define how we go about integrating people into our cause, a culture of philanthropy begins to see the individual as a person who we’re helping to reach their potential in all three of these areas of philanthropic engagement.

It’s fascinating to us that when you look at the connections between individual donors and volunteers and advocates, they’re all completely woven together. And we have survey data from tens of thousands of donors and volunteers in the field and we’re constantly we hear back from donors that want to know more information on how they can be a greater volunteer and volunteers who want to know how they be a donor and how they can grow in their advocacy but so often in practical terms in the field we start siloing people in.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: And the build up between those silos when realistically they’re integrated and they’re whole.

Steven: Right. And it seems kind of weird to think that a nonprofit, any organization, wouldn’t have a culture of philanthropy but a lot of nonprofits don’t really have either a culture at all or their culture of philanthropy just isn’t strong. Why do you think that is? How does that happen? Is it just the silos? Is it leadership? What’s actually going on there that’s preventing it?

Jaime: Yeah, I think a lot of it’s not understanding and then it’s so easy you know for an organization’s culture to be defined transactionally. And when you look at the . . . as Jay has talked so many times in the research that we all so often have seen, the just scarily high attrition rates in both volunteerism and the donor community and the drivers of that because donors feel disconnected. Donors so often, volunteers become commodities inside of organizations and they become about how many checkbooks can I get in the door as opposed to am I empowering those people who care to become change-makers within the organization, and so the culture becomes defined by transaction and it’s just unfortunate but so often it’s not by design. It’s by default.

Steven: Right. And one thing you talk about a lot is that board members really have to buy in to this. Can you explain why it’s important for board members to really believe in this because they’re kind of not on staff officially and maybe some of them aren’t doing fundraising but why should the board really buy into this culture of philanthropy idea?

Jaime: Absolutely. So when you think of the board as the most intimate constituency an organization has. So we have in the nonprofit world we have these volunteers who are legally charged to make decisions that change a person’s life and they’re at this place of greatest intimacy serving as donor-volunteer-advocate level constituencies. And so often as we work with our clients it has to start with understanding that the board is the most intimate constituency we have and that first, we have to understand how to empower them as a donor-volunteer and advocate level constituency. And when we can start to view the board through that lens, then we’re able to take that same sense of servanthood and begin to apply it to those who care about us through volunteering, who care about us because they work for the organization, and/or our donors and again our broad base of volunteers.

So if the board doesn’t understand that, then when it comes down to decisions about things that run the slippery slope of transactionalizing our assets, the board’s going to define leadership unfortunately transactionally and the organization’s unfortunately going to start making decisions that commoditize its environment as opposed to seek to engage it.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: And create co-ownership around the organization and its cause as opposed to just being about something that they do. So it has to start with the board because again they’re legally charged at the most intimate place of impact within the organization.

Steven: And do you find that a board can be transformed, or is it a matter of finding new board members in some cases?

Jaime: I think it’s both. There are a lot of people in the field that have predicted a lot of train wrecks in the nonprofit environment because studies show that the average board is advocating leadership and becoming more focused on management and the average executive director because of programs like what we have at IU and other institutions and practical development programs in the field. You know the average expert in the field is being equipped to lead as opposed to just manage and at some point that creates dynamic tension within an organization. And as you begin to change the culture of the board, you begin to really define and find out who is there because they’re holistic advocates for the cause as opposed to who’s there because they’ve been turned into a commodity.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: It’s what we do. As a firm we’ve spent, we’re now at 14 years of building board culture within our clients and helping them to navigate through this journey and for board members to be able to discover is this the place that they should be? And we tell our clients the greatest thing you can do for a volunteer, especially a board member, is to help them grow to a place to where they have to make decisions about their interests and their priorities so that they can come to that place of knowing, “I’m passionate about this and I bring assets that can make a difference not just monetary, I don’t mean that but my intellectual asset, my heart, my comprehension of the cause, the connections behind it,” and just empowering people, volunteers to become leaders.

So often and we’ve got again survey data from tens of thousands of boards members where we’ve evaluated boards and time and time again the biggest peeve that we hear from board members is that they don’t know whether they’re making any difference at all. They don’t know what to do. They were brought on because someone convinced them to just come on and fill the spot.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: And they don’t even know whether they’re truly connected to the cause but they’re there out of this sense of good will and they don’t even know whether that’s their passion.

Steven: I guess my question is you’ve done all these surveys, are most nonprofits in this boat? Or do most of them get it right? Do most of them treat it, that board like that intimate constituency that they really are, or is this sort of a bigger problem sector-wide?

Jaime: Okay, I’d definitely say it’s a bigger problem sector-wide and I say that from a scope. In addition to client’s we’ve worked with, I’ve trained almost 22,000 people in this field in the nonprofit sector personally and that only matters because it’s a lot of scope on a lot of professionals across the field. This is one of the biggest issues we hear time and time again and the challenge with that is that we’ve invented in the field so many sticks to try to fix this as opposed to addressing cultural issues which is really how do we really program the heart of the organization to bring people in who align with the heart of the organization, so that we don’t need sticks to change situations that we’ve created because we’ve recruited the wrong individuals or people who are there for the wrong causes.

Steven: How do you identify that you’ve been doing it wrong? Because I’m guessing there’s a lot of organizations out there who maybe don’t realize that this is a problem. They think they are pulling those people in and they have all of the best intentions at heart. How do you realize that this is a problem? What are the kind of warning signs I guess for lack of a better word, to identify this as a problem?

Jaime: Yeah absolutely. Board engagement, participation rates, advocacy rates, board giving. One of the things that we ask the boards of our clients is we have every board member identify where does our client rate on their scale of priorities in charitable giving. And when we start working with organizations just to give you some perspective, the average board member on a scale of zero to ten, ten being that it is their absolute highest priority and a one being that it would be their lowest priority, you would hope that the average board member would rate the client that we’re interviewing on behalf of somewhere in at least a seven or eight. And the average board member that we start with is typically maybe about the 50% mark and depending on the organization we’ve had many where you the average board member rates them in the two and three area.

So those are red flags when you see low attendance and low engagement, low advocacy, limited ability to translate the cause and understanding the dynamics of the cause, giving rates obviously being a really big one. So we start with often just interviewing or surveying board members and getting some sense of where are they. And that’s when board members are very candid with us in sharing “Hey, here’s why I’m here, good or bad but here’s my reality and where I go from here.”

And one of the things that we have found so far without exception and we work with or clients to build personal plans of involvement for board members. And one of the things that we have found without exception, when you raise the board literally when you raise the bar of what it means for a board member to be a part of the board of the organization, we have always seen a corollary increase of board recruitment because we’re helping board members to know that if they have an hour to spend, it’s going to be used in a way that’s going to matter.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: And then what we tell our clients on a regular basis is view their board member face time, don’t do anything that doesn’t warrant at least a $100 an hour worth of time. If I’m going to bring you together as a board member, if I’m going to have you in a board meeting, I shouldn’t do anything with you that I don’t justify as at least being worth a $100 an hour of time for volunteers. But to get that then I also have to think differently about what’s worth a $100 an hour.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: Empowering you, equipping you, helping you to be better able to translate the cause, growing you as a leader, investing in you. Those are things that we have to start to view the board as an asset that we’re developing as opposed to just a group of individuals that we’ve recruited to sit in spots.

Steven: Aren’t surveys awesome? I feel like most problems can be solved by surveys or at least start to solve a problem by just doing a survey and figuring out what’s going on. I love it.

Jaime: Right.

Steven: Well, maybe one thing to leave with because I don’t want to take up too much of your time, what’s one piece of advice you would give to people who maybe think this idea might be a problem and they want to turn it around? Other than surveys, what one piece of advice would you give to a nonprofit?

Jaime: One, start meeting with board members one-one-one and then together when they have them together as a group take time in a board meeting for board members to share what is their connection and why are they here. And the histographies of board members are amazing. And you’ll quickly find out who doesn’t know why they’re there and the stories that they need to be able to share that they don’t know how to share. But then you also find out, as we find so often, board members that are deeply, intimately connected by the cause that they’re representing but the person sitting next to them has no idea.

So one, start meeting with them one-on-one and learn about them on an individual level. And then number two, start having them share together within board meetings. But to get to that place because so often the board meeting is a place for if the board is viewed as a commodity, the board meeting becomes a place for that commodity to come together. And so if I have that culture in my organization, then I’m going to have you at a board meeting and my whole focus is giving you information.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: It’s ED reports. It’s data. It’s financial oversights. The idea of me looking at you and trying to help develop you as an asset to the organization is a far stretch.

Steven: Right.

Jaime: So to get to that place requires a bit of a paradigm shift but I would start with just learning about who’s really on the board and why are they really there and how they have been impacted by the cause. And if they haven’t, I want to know that, too.

Steven: Yeah, yeah, that’s good feedback as well. That’s awesome.

Jaime: Absolutely.

Steven: Jaime, this was great to have you. Thanks for sharing your wisdom for a few minutes. Where can people find out more about the work you guys do, check you out?

Jaime: Sure. The quickest and easiest is our website which is just J-D as in David,

Steven: Cool, we’ll link to that. We’ll send people over there for sure. Thanks for hanging out with us, Jaime. This was a lot of fun.

Jaime: Thank you. It’s been fun.

Steven: And thanks to all of you for watching along with us today. We’ll catch you next week with another episode. So we will see you then. Bye now!

Jaime: Thanks!

Kristen Hay

Kristen Hay

Marketing Manager at Bloomerang
Kristen Hay is the Marketing Manager at Bloomerang. From 2018 - 2020, she served as the Director of Communications for the Public Relations Society of America's local Hoosier chapter. Prior to that she served on several different committees and in committee chair roles.