the air in your nonprofit

In Part 1 of this two-parter we discussed why you need to build a culture of philanthropy as a management system. You can’t simply pay lip service to ‘culture of philanthropy.’ It has to become the air in your nonprofit that you breathe.

When culture becomes the air in your nonprofit, only then does it translate into actions – for good or for ill. 

Of course, you’re striving for the ‘good’ outcome: an authentic philanthropy culture that pumps up the air with pure oxygen, turbo-charging performance by everyone associated with your organization.

How Philanthropy Culture Guides All Customer-Centered Daily Decisions and Actions 

Culture runs deep.

It exists whether you work at it or don’t. It’s either healthy, or not. Helpful to your bottom line, or not. So you may as well take charge. And, since it’s reflected in daily work, you must also stay in charge.

Culture can’t be taken for granted.

A 2012 study defines organizational culture as “the shared basic assumptions, values, and beliefs that characterize a setting and are taught to newcomers as the proper way to think and feel, communicated by the myths and stories people tell.

Culture must be taught.

Both by talking and walking.

This is why you need to think of culture as a management system

An organizing framework wherein all the assumptions, values and beliefs at the heart of your organization permeate decisions made, and actions taken, by the entire staff, managers included. In the aggregate, these determine the daily experience for all your customers – including donors and volunteers.

A Philanthropy Culture Puts Donor/Volunteer Experience at the Heart of Your Mission

The primary way social benefit organizations differ from for-profit businesses is the fact they are philanthropically supported. It’s not about how much money you make. Or don’t make. Making money (earned income) is terrific if you can use it to fulfill your mission. A sign of a healthy organization is multiple streams of revenue. Yet most nonprofits, whether they earn income or not, also rely to a large extent on philanthropic income. 

In a philanthropy culture, you look at donors and volunteers through the lens of love.

Staff must understand, embrace and serve donor/volunteer needs and interests. Not just development staff. All staff. Because philanthropists make your mission of love possible. Without them, you have no purpose fulfilled. Without you, they have no purpose fulfilled. The relationship is symbiotic

A Managed Culture Reaps Rewards

Let’s get to the bottom line.

Culture is not frou-frou. Especially for social benefit organizations.

In fact, the team at Gapingvoid Culture Design Group correlated data from Glassdoor and Harvard Business School to conclude when companies build cultures as management systems they prosper. They call the most successful businesses “High Purpose Cultures.”

Guess what happens in well-managed, High Purpose Cultures?

In the referenced research, they had:

  • Average annual stock return of 11.5% over a 17-year period, compared with an overall market average of 6.4%. 
  • Employee turnover rates approximately 50% lower than competitors in their own industries, resulting in significant cost savings as well as knowledge retention within the organization.

Are you a High Purpose Culture?

Of course you are!

Purpose, by its nature, transcends making money: It is about people coming together to do something they believe in and allowing profit to follow as a consequence, rather than as an end in itself. But there is a paradox here. It is hard to fulfill a purpose in the absence of money, so purpose-driven organizations either must rely on donations or benefactors to sustain themselves (as most charities and aid organizations do), or they must become self-funding through their own profits.

MITSloan Management Review

Companies with High Purpose Cultures focus equally on the needs of employees and customers. 

All operational decisions balance the needs of all stakeholders. 

And “a sense of purpose that transcends making money can motivate employees” to (1) make the right decisions, (2) take the right actions, and (3) create positive daily experience for all concerned.

Sense of Purpose Alone Does Not a Philanthropic Culture Make

Here’s where the rubber meets the road.

You simply must work at creating and sustaining a genuine culture of philanthropy. Noble purpose alone won’t cut it.

What must you do? 

4 steps to build a culture of philanthropy

  1. Clearly communicate internally what your organization stands for, and
  2. Adopt a growth mindset, and
  3. Work actively to engage everyone in your organization towards this end, and
  4. Adopt the 9 cultural values that most contribute to success (see above).

Honestly, nonprofit culture change is hard work.  

Mostly it relies on the person in charge.

When Satya Nadella took over from Steve Ballmer at Microsoft the culture had devolved into a toxic soup. The BBC named Ballmer one of the five worst CEOs in 2013, saying culture was a “big problem at the company.” Here’s how Nadella approached the challenge:

“The culture change I wanted was centered on exercising a growth mind-set every day in three distinct ways. First, at the core of our business must be the curiosity and desire to meet a customer’s unarticulated and unmet needs with great technology. This was not abstract: We all get to practice each day. When we talk to customers, we need to listen. We need to be insatiable in our desire to learn from the outside and bring that learning into Microsoft.

Second, we are at our best when we actively seek diversity and inclusion. If we are going to serve the planet as our mission states, we need to reflect the planet. The diversity of our workforce must continue to improve, and we need to include a wide range of opinions and perspectives in our thinking and decision making. In every meeting, don’t just listen—make it possible for others to speak so that everyone’s ideas come through. Inclusiveness will help us become open to learning about our own biases and changing our behaviors so we can tap into the collective power of everyone in the company. As a result, our ideas will be better, our products will be better, and our customers will be better served.

Finally… Innovation and competition don’t respect our silos, so we have to learn to transcend those barriers. It’s our ability to work together that makes our dreams believable and, ultimately, achievable.”

What Steps Will You Take to Approach the Challenge?

Think about what you, personally, are in charge of. How you can exercise a growth mindset to create some transformative change from where you sit? 

  • Perhaps it means simply sending this article to someone else within your organization, with a note saying “This is interesting. I wonder what we should be more curious about to better serve our customers.” 
  • Perhaps you might bring this to a management meeting for discussion if you’re part of your management team. 
  • Perhaps, if you’re the person with whom the buck stops, you might collaborate with staff and volunteers to work through the four steps outlined above. Think about how you might put this into practice.

Key to Sustainable Culture Change

BEGIN with individual empowerment. If you don’t encourage employees to make decisions, they won’t. 

  • People coming from a place of fear will be afraid to act.
  • People coming from a place of love will embrace their job, their co-workers, and all your internal and external customers.

CONTINUE with frequent questioning. If you don’t ask yourself and others questions every day, you’ll stagnate.

  • Culture must be nourished through curiosity, creativity and risk-taking.
  • Culture must be nourished by bringing in fresh viewpoints and giving people space to express divergent opinions without repercussions.

SUMMARY: Culture of Philanthropy Significance

The best way to survive an imperfect culture is to strive with every fiber of your being to make it more perfect. If you want to be successful at generating philanthropy (both money and acts of service), you must succeed in building and sustaining a culture of philanthropy.

Generosity begets generosity.

Here are your marching orders:

  1. Treat internal stakeholders as kindly as you treat external ones.
  2. Adopt an attitude of gratitude towards those who support you and work with you, donors, volunteers and staff alike.
  3. Fully enjoy and embrace your mission and feel simpatico with the values your organization enacts every day.
  4. Articulate philanthropy’s role in advancing the organization’s mission and values
  5. Develop a management system to assure everyone enjoys and embraces your mission and feels simpatico with the values your organization enacts every day.
  6. Keep everyone in the loop  staff, volunteers and customers.
  7. Make customer service a top priority.

Hungry for some practical tools to heal the divide? Download this Culture of Philanthropy Checklist loaded with action tips to determine if your nonprofit has a culture of philanthropy in place and ways to get started creating one.

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.