Nonprofit's culture of philanthropy

If you’re a fundraiser bemoaning the lack of your nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy, you don’t get off that easily.  

You’re part of the problem.

In fact, you may BE the problem.

Why is that?

Because you are the one person, or one department, actually charged with living and breathing philanthropy on a daily basis. It’s in your job description. You are the philanthropy facilitator.  

As such, you must do everything within your power to make philanthropy flow. And it’s not an individual sport. It takes a village.

The pioneering, pull-no-punches Simone Joyaux, who passed away too soon on Sunday May 2, 2021, understood this well before people were talking about it. It’s a fitting tribute to quote her here, and carry on her legacy.

“Fund development is, first, organizational development…

It’s a big job, serving as a development officer. Bigger than far too many development officers (or their bosses and boards) think.

You choose. You can be a grant writer or direct mail specialist or fundraising events specialist. All marvelous and very critical technician specialists.

Or you can be a generalist, responsible for everything. If that’s your current or desired position, then you have to know enough about everything to act better and best.

Welcome to the real world of “more than a great fundraising technician”—and that holds true for pretty much any senior-level position, e.g., program director, finance officer, and of course the ED/CEO.”

Simone Joyaux

A Nonprofit’s Culture of Philanthropy: Who’s Job is it? 

Your organization won’t survive and thrive with only great fundraising technicians. Youand the entire social benefit sectorneed organizational-development-grounded philanthropic facilitators.

Without a culture of philanthropy in your organization, you simply won’t have all the pre-conditions in place to be truly effective at fundraising. Sure, you’ll raise some money. But you’ll leave even more money on the table.

I wouldn’t hire you. And if I found myself in a job where I couldn’t instill a culture of philanthropy over a reasonable period of time, I’d fire myself (and I have).

Why is that?

Because if your mission is supported substantially by philanthropic dollars, fundraising must become a strategic priority. Because everyone is impacted by your ability to raise money. And that definitely includes all your staff.

Which means you must help others overcome the “money taboo.” We’ve been trained in our society that it’s not polite to talk about money. Often fundraisers are looked at disdainfully as money-grubbers. They’re put over in a corner and told to “go raise funds.” Others in the organization don’t want to get their hands “dirty.”

Your job is to disabuse those with whom you work of this “dirty money” notion. After all, they don’t think the money is dirty when they get their paycheck, right? And just because they rationalize their paycheck supports helping people, animals, nature or whatever the “real work” of your mission is, while yours facilitates raising money to pay for this work, there’s no real difference if you look at the big picture.  

Everyone’s work makes the mission happen. Or not.

“Organizations are complex systems that interact constantly and significantly with a host of other equally complex systems. The most important property of these systems is that they cannot be broken down into parts that have separate lives of their own. Thus, in an organization, no basic functions, departments, or objectives exist independently of one another.”

Dan Ariely, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves 

One of my favorite thinkers and writers about organizations and leadership is Peter Drucker. He is the one to whom the “culture eats strategy for breakfast” quote is attributed. Meaning? You can have the best strategies in the world, but they won’t yield the best of all possible outcomes absent an underlying organizational culture that assures everyone pulls in the same direction. 

What can the fundraiser do to help build and instill this culture?

“The future will not just happen if one wishes hard enough.”

Peter Drucker, Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practice

How to Fulfill Your Responsibility

Sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the lack of a philanthropic culture at your organization will not get you where you want to go. It will simply frustrate and depress you. And your attitude will be contagious. Not in a good way. There’s a way to turn the tables and move from negativity to positivity. Here are some ways to get everyone on board.

1. Make Continuing Education a Priority

When people are presented with something novel they don’t understand, a natural tendency is to ignore it. To push it down and pretend it isn’t relevant to their life. Or their organization. When the subject of “culture of philanthropy” comes up, how do you respond? Do you understand what it means? Could you name six core indicators of a culture of philanthropy? Could you describe which indicators your organization has, and which they don’t? Things like the coronavirus are a lot scarier, and much harder to manage, if you don’t understand what they are. The same holds true with a culture. Start by doing some reading on the subject. 

Here are some good places to begin:

2. Shape the Conversation 

Once you have a good handle on the subject matter, consider how you might want to shape a conversation on the topic with your key stakeholders. Since you’re the fundraiser, you’re going to want to talk from the perspective of what it takes to generate philanthropic support and how a culture of philanthropy can contribute to your positive bottom line

It may mean any of the following, and more:

  • Everyone is included. No one should fall back on “that’s not my job” when it comes to passionately and proactively articulating your vision, mission, and values.
  • Public-facing staffthe receptionist, volunteer coordinator, membership manager, box office, admissions, and everyone elseall must respond to phone inquiries as if the caller could be a current or potential donor (i.e., customer service is a priority).
  • Program staff must be willing to share stories about how donor dollars make an impact.
  • Collaboration is key. A rising tide raises all boats, so competitionwithin departments, between departmental silos, or between organizationsmerely causes the waters and boats to sink.
  • Donors only see one organizational culture (aka brand); from the donor perspective, who the message comes from doesn’t matter. They care about the message being consistent.

3. Share What You Know by Becoming a Teacher

Once you understand the philanthropic culture “virus” and have carefully considered how to talk about it in ways others can understand, now you want to spread the virus. That’s right. You want to become contagiousin a good way. If folks outside the fundraising department don’t understand what’s needed to enlist philanthropic support, your job is to educate. 

This means any or all of the following, depending on current levels of understanding at your organization:

  • When interviewing for a new job, ask your interviewer how they would describe the organization’s culture. Ask if they are familiar with the term “culture of philanthropy.” If not, describe it for them and ask if they have one. If they don’t have one, find out if they want one. Ask what they think it would take to get there. Before joining a new team, it’s best to go in forewarned. If you can’t enlist your boss at this point, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to enlist them after the fact.
  • When hiring a new development professional, especially at the director level, ask them the same questions about their understanding of a nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy. Ask them what they’ve done in previous jobs to help develop this culture.
  • When leading a development team and/or participating as a member of executive management, consider how you might engage everyone in a conversation on the topic. Some things I’ve done include:
    • Leading an in-service educational presentation at a staff meeting.
    • Sharing articles on the topic and asking for feedback as to how we can better develop our own culture.
    • Inviting people to join me by participating in a webinar on the topic.
  • When connecting with board members, consider how to persuade them that philanthropy facilitation is everyone’s job. It’s not just for the board development committee or the staff. Again, no one should fall back on “that’s not my job” or “I’ll do anything but fundraising.” Some things I’ve done include:
    • Leading a session around “inspiring philanthropy” (i.e., talking about purpose and passion), in lieu of a traditional board “training” (i.e., focused on asking strategies and practice sessions). The former is uplifting; the latter can be scary.
    • Letting the entire board know they’re all on the fundraising committee, and there are different ways to participateas ambassadors, advocates or askersaccording to their level of comfort.
    • Asking board members to help with thank you callsa non-threatening way to get comfortable interacting with donors.
    • Asking board members to complete engagement forms indicating ways they’d like to participate in the coming year, being sure to follow up individually to cement the deal and offer needed support and hold them to their commitment.
    • Asking board members to attend staff meetings to get closer to the work and build relationships with the people doing the mission work.
  • When connecting with program staff, take them to lunch or coffee to learn more about their jobs. It helps to know you’re on the same team, and everyone is coming from a place of love. Offer to attend their staff meetings to talk about how their work makes fundraising possible and invite them to sit in on your development staff meetings from time to time as well. Work transparency is an attribute of a strong culture of philanthropy.

4. Enlist an Advocate—or Several—to Preach the Gospel

There’s strength in numbers. Here are some things to try. Better yet, try them all:

  • Begin with your executive director. Culture tends to reflect who’s in charge. Forward articles and webinars, share what you’ve learned about fostering your nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy, and indicate you’d like to discuss further. Get them on board then offer to lead a discussion at an executive management team meeting. You’ll get your best outcome if leaders of all departments are dedicated to the cause.
  • Find a board member who understands the importance of a philanthropic culture. Ask them for feedback around how they perceive your organization’s current culture. Feel free to share this checklist with them to kick start the conversation. Get their take. Give your take. Have a conversation around shared perceptions of areas for improvement. Talk with them about best ways to raise funds and explore the subject with the executive director, board president, and/or with the full board. 
  • Find a major donor who sits on the board and/or supports another organization with a strong philanthropic culture in place. Ask if they would consider taking your executive director, board chair, or development chairor whoever you need to persuadeout to lunch.
  • Find champions among staff in other departments. Make these people responsible for educating their departments and discussing different ways to improve your organizational culture and, especially, manage input from the development department.

Closing Thoughts

The fact that your organization currently does not have a strong culture of philanthropy is probably not due to evil design. More likely, your leaders never received training in organizational or fund developmentlet alone diversity, equity, inclusion, and philanthropic culture. These things must be taught. This is why education and leading by example become your responsibility, at least if you want to succeed in your job.

Don’t apologize for fundraising. If your organization is meeting valued needs, then it’s your responsibility to raise funds to assure your mission continues. Fully embrace this obligation and intentionally work at building an internal culture of philanthropy. When you do, you’ll put yourself in the best position to survive and thrive.

I see the end goal of fundraising being to restore balance to the world. When things are out of whack, there’s a need to whack them back into place. I grew up in the Jewish community, where the word for charity is tzedekah. The root, tzedek, means justice. I organized “Tzedekah Committees” in lieu of Development Committees when I worked at Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and we invited speakers to discuss the role of charity in the world. What amazing discussions we had, and so much learning ensued! You could organize “Charity Committees” and accomplish the same thing, discussing the role of “caritas” or caring.

Justice, balance, caring, and empathy are key components of a nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy, as is the “golden rule,” which underlies just about every world religion. When you come from a place of doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you, or at least from a place of “do no harm,” you’ll more likely find your fundraising efforts are not just successful but also fulfilling. Most people want to come from a place of love.

The perceived four-letter word part of fundraising is evolving towards “philanthropy raising” aka love of humanity raising, and savvy organizations no longer consider this endeavor just a means to an end. Donors not only serve your mission; they’re a core part of your mission. When you give them meaning, they’ll give it right back to you, your mission, and your values. Philanthropy facilitation helps internal stakeholders, external stakeholders, your beneficiaries, community, and world. 

Begin with your own education around the meaning of a nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy. When you shift your focus from transactional to transformational, wonders will ensue. You‘ll see real progress. Starting with you. 

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.
Claire Axelrad