Defining a “Culture of Philanthropy”

Defining a “Culture of Philanthropy”

A few years ago the phrase “culture of philanthropy” started cropping up all over the nonprofit sector as a descriptor of best practices. It has been touted as an integral component to building a sustainable organization at conferences and webinars, in blog posts, and among savvy professionals. In my diligent efforts to carry over these best practices to my own organization, I found, however, a wealth of information on the philosophical concept of a “culture of philanthropy” and dearth of real-world examples of what this phrase looked like in practice. So you don’t have to scour the interwebs, I’ve laid out a few real-life examples of what it means and what it looks like in practice.

But first, a teensy slice of philosophical musing to give a little context to this post: contrary to the name, fundraising is not about money; it is about impact. It is about growing an organization’s capacity to achieve its mission. Bear this in mind and read on.

What does “culture of philanthropy” really mean?

In its broadest sense, a culture of philanthropy describes an organization’s attitude toward fundraising and philanthropy…

…But what that really means is that if an organization has a healthy culture of philanthropy, then philanthropy is woven throughout the organization–and not siloed into the development department or among executives. Organization-wide, the staff and the board: value the mission, understand that philanthropy is essential to achieving the mission, and are involved in the fund development process in some way.  

Development staff will still play a critical role, but it is in tandem with the rest of the organization. This kind of integration ultimately begets tremendous benefits for the entire organization and its beneficiaries. A culture of philanthropy is integral to successful fundraising, allowing nonprofits to raise increased revenue to achieve their mission and, often, resulting in a better workplace for all staff and a greater success toward achieving the mission with more resources available for programs and staffing.

What does a culture of philanthropy look like in practice?

It means all staff and the board understand the role of philanthropy within their organization.

It means everyone has a solid understanding of donor intent and donor respect. Staff are well-informed on donor intention and donor requests for gifts that relate to their programs or role. For instance, if a foundation makes a gift designated for an after school theater program and requests photos and updates on a quarterly basis: the finance officer at the organization designates the grant funds toward the budget of that program–and no other budgets unless given express permission by the funder; and the program officer overseeing it ensures that quality photos are taken showing the program in action and thoughtful updates on the program’s progress are compiled and given to the development officer who reports on the grant. This is a long-winded way to say: throughout the organization, everyone has a role to play. In short, if the donor and the organization make an agreement at the outset of a donation, then that agreement is honored throughout the organization, whether it’s anonymity as a donor, designating their gift to a certain program, or requesting updates on their gift.

It means that organization-wide, there is a culture of gratitude. Sometimes we become so enmeshed in our own work that we forget that our salaries, our budget for program supplies, and our building’s rent all came from people–people who believe in our work and want to see us succeed in our mission, so much that they chose to give their own money to support our organization’s endeavors. Remembering this makes it feel less like a chore to report on a program’s progress, and more like an act of gratitude. An organization’s donors should be thanked warmly and frequently from their development contacts, but it is so powerful to also hear thanks from others in the organization. Development staff can help to foster a culture of gratitude by talking about the people behind the funds and providing opportunities for the staff and board to thank donors.

It means development staff create opportunities for donors to interact directly with staff, the board, and clients (as appropriate). Donors give because they love your organization and they believe in the work that you do. Development professionals are tasked with assisting donors to experience the joy of helping to solve a problem by advancing an organization’s mission. What could be more joyful than seeing the face of a hopeful young mother who has enough food to feed her family thanks to their donation or meeting a client who has been given a second chance at employment thanks to their foundation’s support? Development staff can invite donors to visit programs, provide event opportunities to bring together supporters with staff and clients, or work with program staff to have clients write thank you notes to program donors. There are numerous ways to bring donors into the organization and build a powerful connection between the work that your organization does and the people who make it possible.

This means all staff are informed about the organization’s activities. Everyone shares in the organization’s successes with one other. Further, everyone fully understands the organization’s mission and cares about the organization’s success toward achieving its mission. Sharing success stories helps everyone to realize that you are all working toward a common goal, and how your personal goals are related. A program officer’s success with a client is a development officer’s success for the donation that supported that program, and a development officer’s success in raising funds is a program officer’s success in having a better-funded program. The more we can break down silos and share what’s going on in our departments, the better the results are for all of us.

It means that staff understand they are all ambassadors representing the organization. From the receptionist to the custodial staff to the program staff, everyone in the organization represents it to the outside world. If staff are mindful of this it can help us to remember to be polite and professional in our roles. You could be unknowingly talking to a current or potential donor, a journalist who could write a great article about the organization that will drive support, or a potential program partner.

This means that the board supports the organization philanthropically, in an amount that is significant to each individual. Boards are responsible for an organization’s financial health, ultimately, and should support that organization with personal and fundraised financial support. A “significant” donation may vary greatly depending on the income of the board member, but in general, board members should give an amount that is meaningful to them, and lead by example as the governing body of the organization.

This means that the executive director and development director should support the organization with an annual (or more frequent) financial contribution. If the people soliciting funds for an organization don’t even support it, why would a potential donor want to? Even if the donation is small, it is symbolic, and leaders should philanthropically support their organization as a best practice.

Stay tuned until next week when I’ll write more about some practical steps you can take within your own organization to build a culture of philanthropy.

Ellen Eoff, Director of Development Strategy


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