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Embrace a Culture of Philanthropy

What is the difference between an organization that has a culture of fundraising and one that pursues a culture of philanthropy? In a culture of fundraising, reaching the goal is the singular objective and donors are simply a means to solve a problem. The organization needs money. Donors have money. Ask for a gift (typically the bigger, the better). This transactional approach can lead donors to wonder: “does the organization care about me, or only my money?”

By contrast, in a culture of philanthropy, donors are valued for their gifts of time, talent, treasure, and testimony. They’re treated like trusted partners and advisors.  Gifts of all sizes matter, and everyone in the organization embraces their role in cultivating relationships that inspire generosity.

A strong culture of philanthropy advances your mission for the long term. It also ensures your organization is resilient enough to weather the crises that are sure to come.

Here’s how to nurture the type of environment that will sustain your nonprofit for years to come.

Evaluate the Language You Use When Talking About Donors

As an executive leader, you set the tone regarding how your organization treats donors. That tone begins with the language you use when talking about prospective and current supporters.

I learned this powerful lesson early in my career. As a young fundraiser, I was part of the development team at The Ohio State University and had the privilege of learning from the great Jerry May. One night, at an event that was part of the University’s first billion-dollar campaign, I made an offhand remark about a donor while Jerry and I were waiting for the event to begin. I don’t remember exactly what I said. It may have been a joke or a remark that conveyed some sense of entitlement. Regardless, Jerry’s response stopped me in my tracks.

“Laura, we don’t talk about donors that way at Ohio State, ” he said. Respectfully but firmly, he told me that the way we discuss donors when nobody else is looking mirrors our true attitudes and motivations. His words made it clear that he expected more from me and our entire team.

Through this brief interaction — and through the way he carried himself as a leader — Jerry taught me how donors and stakeholders deserve to be treated. He modeled what it means to speak about them with respect. I’ve carried his ethos with me ever since.

Words matter. To that end, if you’re serious about strengthening your organization’s culture of philanthropy, start by taking a hard look at the language you and your team use behind the scenes.

Communicate the Impact of Generosity

The way you communicate to internal and external stakeholders about philanthropy in general also plays a key role in shaping your culture. It’s incumbent on you to cascade consistent messages about the ways philanthropy fuels your mission, and to reinforce it in meetings, newsletters, press releases, campaign communications, and events. Remember, money is just one form of philanthropy: gifts of time, talent, and testimony are worthy of recognition, too.

Tell Stories of Gratitude

The best fundraising leaders are effective storytellers who inspire people around them with compelling narratives. Sharing stories of gratitude is a particularly effective way to demonstrate the value of philanthropy at your organization.

For example, imagine you serve as the chief fundraiser for a healthcare organization. One day, you receive a gift in honor of a caregiver who comforted the donor’s loved one in their final hours of life. Telling that story to the employee directly and to the organization as a whole is a beautiful way to illustrate how the good work your people do every day inspires generosity.

When you do this consistently, your colleagues who are in the trenches delivering your services will begin to see you as a trusted partner. And when that happens, they’ll feel comfortable referring family members to the development office the next time loved ones want to express their gratitude.

That’s what a vibrant culture of philanthropy looks like.

Organization-Centered vs. Donor-Centered Communication

In a culture of fundraising, communications tend to be organization-centered and emphasize the dollars that need to be (or have been) raised. For example, a headline announcing the successful conclusion of a campaign might read, “XYZ Organization Sets New Record, Raising $50 Million to Construct a Fine Arts Center.”

The focus here is on the organization, their ability to raise the funds, and their accomplishment in setting a new record.

That headline would look very different in an organization committed to promoting a culture of philanthropy. It might read, “Making the Arts Accessible: Community Members Construct a New Fine Arts Center with an investment of $50 Million in the XYZ Organization.”

This version evokes a sense of community spirit and gives credit to the donors rather than to the organization. It also provides context regarding the purpose behind the campaign.

To strengthen your culture of philanthropy, highlight your donors and their impact, not your organization’s own accomplishments.

Reinforce the Idea that Fundraising is Everyone’s Job

When you have a strong culture of philanthropy, your entire enterprise — from the boardroom to the boiler room — understands the role they play in creating an environment where donors are valued. Fundraising isn’t just the development team’s responsibility. Nurturing support is everyone’s job.

For instance, when the Dallas Museum of Art was planning their 100th anniversary, which coincided with the end of a successful capital campaign, the development team didn’t generate the best idea for marking this milestone. A member of the security team pitched the winning concept.

Even though it meant additional work for the security team in particular, this individual suggested the museum stay open for 100 straight hours to commemorate the occasion. The museum obtained special news coverage and did something fun during every hour of the 100-hour event.

This memorable grand-scale celebration was the perfect way to thank donors for their support and invite community members to experience the museum. And it all came about thanks to the strong culture of philanthropy the museum worked hard to foster.

A Stronger Culture of Philanthropy Begins With You

Canadian farmer Nelson Henderson famously said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” When it comes to shaping your organization’s culture of philanthropy, the responsibility to plant those future trees lies with you. You may not see the results you’d like overnight, and that’s OK. Keep the long view in mind and remember: your words and actions impact the long arc of history at your organization. Take steps today to create the culture you want down the road.

Laura MacDonald has earned a national reputation for her dedication to the nonprofit sector. She is a Certified Fund-Raising Executive (CFRE) with decades of experience in nonprofit leadership, fundraising, and philanthropy. In 1999, she established Benefactor Group to serve the needs of those who serve the common good.

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