The magic key that will transform the nonprofit sector

main.jpgWe’ve all heard it, I’m sure. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. Right?

Whether or not you’ve heard this aphorism, I’d be willing to bet you’ve experienced it. I sure have – in different sizes and types of organizations, and in different ways within those organizations.

But never have I been more frustrated by this truth than when it relates to the lack of a culture of philanthropy in a nonprofit.

Without a culture of philanthropy, growth is slow and painful, if not impossible. Sound strategies for new projects or programs sputter and fumble. Financial stability is but a dream. 

Why would the “keepers of the flame” for any mission-driven organization harm it in those ways?! Why, indeed?

Because they’re afraid.  Of fundraising.


They "don’t want to ask anyone for money." They think that that’s what fundraising/development/philanthropy is…and they don’t want to touch it. If it needs to be done, they want to pay someone else to do it – so they don’t have to.

But here’s the problem with that thinking: a paid fundraiser is going to have to claw for success – or even see success slip through her/his fingers – if there is not a robust culture of philanthropy in which she/he can plant seeds and harvest growth, build positive relationships, and grow the base of support for the organization.

Short-cuts are not possible here. No: each organization needs to do its own hard work to grow that culture of philanthropy, if it wants to survive and thrive.

What is a culture of philanthropy?

Building a culture of philanthropy is a hot topic in the nonprofit sector, lately.  

Check out this article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  And/or this one from Guidestar. And/or this slide deck from the 2014 Leadership Conference of the Minnesota Council on Nonprofits.

One of my favorite thought-leaders in the field, Simone Joyaux, writes this in the Nonprofit Quarterly to describe a culture of philanthropy: "Everyone in the organization, from the janitor to the chair of the board, understands that philanthropy and fund development are critical to organizational health and that each individual ([from] the janitor [to] the board chair) has a role in the process."

The Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund’s blog recently queried its readers about whether building a culture of philanthropy needed to replace the typical approach of "fundraising" in nonprofit organizations, and they received "scores of responses."

In distilling those responses, the blog asserted that building a culture of philanthropy means three things:

  1. Fundraising can no longer be decoupled from overall engagement with the organization – meaning donations are not merely transactions, but rather, they are part and parcel of an ongoing, continually developing relationship between a donor and an organization.

  2. Development is everyone’s responsibility (all staff, board members, etc.) – not just the development professional’s or the development/advancement/philanthropy committee’s. Success will be limited, otherwise.

  3. Donor-centrism – or paying deep attention to what donors value and need – is the key to a culture of philanthropy.

For many of you, all of that is obvious — indisputable even. But for many people in our sector, these things are not a given. 

Why is this the culture shift our sector needs?

Let me break this down for you.

When is the last time you were able to pay a bill with good wishes? Or to give a bill-collector some of your time or skills to settle the score?

I think I know the answer.

You weren’t.


We know the following: 

  • Financial resources are necessary to run an organization. (Things like keeping the lights on, paying staff, and paying rent are all bills that require cash, in order for the organization to stay in business.)

  • An organization is often necessary to achieve a mission – for things that are beyond a one-person operation, like helping homeless families find housing, cleaning up a polluted river, or educating people.

  • If you care about a mission like this, and you want to see it achieved, one of the best ways you can meet your goal is to contribute financial resources to an organization working on that mission. And to help inspire others to do the same.

Do you see?

Financial value = life values.

Value is value, in different forms and manifestations. Your most deeply held life values should be reflected in how you distribute your financial value in the world. Your financial resources are the fuel for the things you want to achieve in your lifetime. You demonstrate and affirm what you most care about by giving your hard-earned dollars to those things you care about.

And here we come to the crux of the matter.

Philanthropy is about values. A culture of philanthropy encourages people to get in touch with, develop their passion for, and actively promote their values.

How can you best help the nonprofit(s) you love?

You don’t need to fundraise.


You don’t need to "ask for money." You don’t need to arm-twist anyone.

For all you nonprofit staffers and board members reading, here are some ways to help create a culture of philanthropy at your nonprofit:

  1. Share your passion for your mission with others -- so much so that you are excited about inviting others to find out more about your mission and to join you in achieving it.

  2. Give a donation -- no matter how small. Just make sure the amount is meaningful to you. (Guidelines I often hear are that the amount puts this nonprofit in your "top three" nonprofit beneficiaries, or that the amount is something you’d have to discuss with your partner/spouse.) But overall, the amount is beside the point. Giving is the thing that matters.

  3. Honor donors. Listen to them closely. Help them feel like they are the most important people you’ve talked to that day – because remember, they are the VIPs who make your organization’s work sustainable!

  4. Happily roll up your sleeves to help build community engagement with your mission. That may mean volunteering to help with fundraising or outreach events, making thank you calls to donors, providing emotional and/or logistical support to your development team, and/or having a warm and inviting phone conversation with someone who calls your organization with a question or concern.

If we can really get into the groove of it, folks, none of this should be hard. In fact, I think it should come fairly naturally to you, once you get going with it.

As nonprofit employees and board members, we care. A lot.

We want to do good things. We want to make the world a better place. We want to make a positive and lasting impact.

How can we best achieve our goals? By making a culture of philanthropy the norm within our sector.

All of us. Working together.

We can do it.


Our sector depends on it!

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