My Line of Thought…A Culture of Philanthropy

A quick search using the key words “organization” and “culture” together on books returns over 8,000 results.  That is a significant amount of opinions, studies, and explanations on the subject. Some of these books are seeking the holy grail of the best organizational culture and advocating that all organizations should strive to achieve a particular culture.  Is there a “best” organizational culture?  No. The desired culture of an organization can very dependent on the mission of the organization and not all missions are the same. The culture of a creative ad agency, for example, may not work so well for a military squad steeped in battle.

Nonprofits relying on fundraising to help advance an overarching mission benefit from the instillation of a culture of philanthropy. Fundraising is a team sport. The culture of philanthropy within a nonprofit demonstrates a universal understanding, at all levels of the organization, of the connection between donors and their philanthropic investment. Further, there is staff willingness, regardless of title or job description, to participate in the process to secure and steward this investment though a shared understanding and respect for the donor giving cycle. To often the fundraising department is viewed by others that asking for money, stewarding a gift, or promoting gifting opportunities lies only with the advancement team and it’s their job alone to bring in gifts from individuals, companies, trusts or foundations.

It is the job of a fundraiser to secure gifts, but the attitude that it should only be left to the fundraiser is short-changing the organization. Should the players on a premiere sports team (select your preferred sport) work in isolation of the trainers, conditioning coaches, facilities personnel, the head coach? It is hard to fathom how athletes who take to the field without general support, without a game plan advocated and instructed by a coach, or without interaction with other members of the organization could  become a premiere sports team.

Within a non-profit organization’s overarching culture, the desired culture of philanthropy needs to be developed. Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as they correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”[1]

Culture is deeper than the climate of an organization. Denison articulates the difference: “Climate refers to a situation and its link to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of organizational members. Thus, it is temporal, subjective, and often subject to direct manipulation by people with power and influence.  Culture, in contrast, refers to an evolved contest (within which a situation may be embedded).” [2]  To be recognized as having a culture of philanthropy it must be embedded throughout the organization.

Sustaining this culture requires the embracement, and enhancement, by each new leader of the organization. Successful fundraising builds on itself as demonstrated by a plethora of organizations upon celebrating a successful campaign begin working on the next one. Although campaigns may have set shorter time frames, fundraising is ongoing and requires a vision looking beyond the horizon.

Having leadership connect the philanthropic dots for members of the organization is a critical component, along with leadership practicing what he/she preaches. Unfortunately, for some in an organization fundraising is a “dirty” word. Further, an individual not involved daily in fundraising may view a potential donor as a multi-millionaire so they should have no problem giving the organization (or a special project within the organization) $500K or $1M—after all they are multi-millionaires. This is not a culture of philanthropy as it lacks an understanding and respect for the donor giving cycle. The donor giving cycle works towards proposal alignment followed by an appropriate solicitation and sustainable stewardship. It is the right project, the right timing, the right amount with the right person asking.

The fundraiser must be able to articulate the mission along with the successes and remaining challenges to a potential donor.  Typically, the fundraiser is not in the trenches delivery the services of the nonprofit to the end user. This is an important factor and why creating a culture of philanthropy is critical to creating a high performing and sustainable fundraising program. The success of a particular fundraiser, or fundraising campaign, requires collaboration among fundraisers, along with the entire team in the fundraising portfolio, and the organization’s entire team.

Depending on the “maturity” of the fundraising and engagement program within an organization,  the time to achieve a culture of philanthropy can vary. What does the organizational structure look like?  Where does the office(s) of relations and fundraising sit on the organizational chart? Does the director (or organizational title used) report directly to the CEO/President of the organization? Is the position limited to the areas of relations and fundraising or is the position combined with communications, marketing, or another area that indirectly may help the fundraising unit, but takes time away from the core business of the relations and fundraising unit?

Budgeting.  When it comes to developing the organization’s budget is the fundraising KPI equal to the projected shortfall in the budget, i.e. fundraising needs to fill the gap. Or are the KPIs for fundraising more measured? Is there a director of fundraising in the room when the overall organization’s budget is developed?

Strategic plan. When the organization’s strategic plan is developed how is fundraising and external engagement included? It is part of the discussion at the highest level of the organization? Does the strategic plan incorporate the fundraising and engagement component?

The culture of philanthropy within an organization may develop organically over time, however, the opportunity cost while this is happening could be significant. Rather, it is worth exploring implementing an education and involvement program to speed up the process to help members of the team connect the important work they do to fundraising success. Everyone at the organization should be included—after all, it is a team sport.

[1] Schein, E. 1985. Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Schein, E. 1992. Organizational culture and leadership (2nd ed.). 

[2] Denison, D. 1996. What is the difference between organizational culture and organizational climate? A native’s point of view on decade of paradigm wars. Academy of Management.