No Money, No Mission? What It Means to Build a Culture of Philanthropy

culture of philanthropy

Does your nonprofit have so many silos that you should invest in some land and start a farm?

If you’ve reached a stage where there are staff members or teams focused in separate areas, like marketing, programs or finance, there’s potential for your nonprofit’s organizational culture to become fragmented, too. In recent years, some fundraisers have started to focus on building a “culture of philanthropy” to reconnect with teams and make development efforts more effective and cohesive.

In theory, the result is that fundraising becomes more sustainable as more people in an organization work toward this common goal. But what does a culture of philanthropy look like in practice?

Fundraising MattersBlackbaud’s latest addition to their npEXPERTS series, Fundraising Matters: Building a Culture of Philanthropy, seeks to answer this question and provide a roadmap to fundraising success that involves your entire organization. It’s a quick read with short chapters and actionable ideas, perfect for development and c-suite nonprofit staff that struggle to explain the role of every employee in funding the mission.

What is a Culture of Philanthropy?

According to the eBook, a culture of philanthropy is “one in which executives, board members, accountants, marketers, and everyone in between understand the importance of your organization’s fundraising success and how they can contribute to it within their unique roles.”

In exploring the challenges of creating a culture of fundraising, each chapter discusses the types of snags you’d expect (and have probably personally experienced). The unwilling board member, the inexperienced receptionist, the hyper-focused program officer.

The solution? It turns out that a culture of philanthropy doesn’t require anything particularly groundbreaking. Good philanthropy means building high quality relationships with excellent “customer service,” no matter your job title. It’s deciding that your organization is going to focus its energy on cultivating the donor relationships (and not just dollars) that support your mission.

How Does It Apply to Marketing?

As nonprofit marketers, you already know the power of engagement and building relationships. The tools at your fingertips, from websites to social media, are a part of a donor’s journey.

In many ways, the path to building a culture of philanthropy is business-as-usual for nonprofit communicators. Understanding the goals, challenges and interests of a target audience is the foundation of our work. But what about all the audiences that aren’t donors?

Donor-Centered vs. Audience-Centered

When marketing and fundraising overlap, it’s often in the creation of donor-centric materials. Some folks out there might argue that all communications should be donor-centered, but that doesn’t really align with basic nonprofit marketing principles that guide us to meet people where they are (i.e. sometimes at the very beginning, as strangers).

For marketers, being donor-centered makes a ton of sense as one of the lenses through which we look at our work. You can also find us cultivating mission-critical relationships with our program recipients, volunteers, influencers, journalists and partners. We create target personas for all types of constituents so that everyone, not just donors, feel informed, inspired and empowered.

Does this diminish the importance of a culture of philanthropy? Not necessarily.

But it does raise critical questions about how dominant a donor-centric culture should be within organizations who (theoretically) serve many constituencies, some with less power, presence and voice than funders.

In fact, after reading this eBook, I recommend reflecting on the points that Vu Le raises in an article that came out around the same time, “How donor-centrism perpetuates inequity, and why we must move toward community-centric fundraising.” There’s also a second, follow-up post that offers additional insight, “9 Principles of Community-Centric Fundraising.”

Digging Deeper

For me, reading more about both of these perspectives (which, to be fair, aren’t at odds 100% of the time) raises a couple of key questions.

First, when built properly, does a culture of philanthropy lead to good relationship building all around? The tools and processes that an organization relies upon to build and sustain a culture of philanthropy seem like great best practices in general.

Second, does the inherent donor-centrism found in a culture of philanthropy perpetuate an imbalance that causes dissatisfaction in other areas of an organization and the larger community? Looking outside of the core fundraising team, it’s possible that a shift toward a culture of philanthropy could come at the cost of reaching and engaging meaningfully with a wide circle of people, something that could burnout areas of the organization focused on outreach and programs.

There’s still much to learn and test—and there are those who would (correctly) point out that we’re not exactly overwhelmed by the amount of nonprofits doing great donor-centric fundraising and communications right now. So where do we go from here?

Building Common Ground

As a long-time fan of Beth Kanter, it’s probably not surprising that her chapter on marketing for Fundraising Matters was my favorite. I’ve previously written about the ways that marketing and fundraising teams can work together, and I couldn’t agree more with her point that organizational culture is co-created:

“Every staff and board member and every team needs to embrace the importance of being supporter-centered as well as mission-centered. They need to be champions for the organization’s programs and services, but also for philanthropy and donor stewardship. It isn’t about training everyone in your organization to ask for donations, but to believe in the organization’s impact and embracing their role in that process as a team.”

Building a culture of philanthropy means asking questions, sharing more, collaborating and compromising. It’s organizing cross-team meetings, using data (not just donor wishes and anecdotes) to make decisions, and thinking about different points of view.

I think the same could be said for an effective culture of communications or a culture of fiscal responsibility. The internal and external relationship-building that’s needed for a culture of philanthropy is also what leads to more impact with programs and services.

Finding Balance

By exploring the practices and mindsets that create a culture of philanthropy, Fundraising Matters provides valuable insights for development staff who are struggling to break down the internal barriers that limit their effectiveness. For other readers, like nonprofit marketers and program managers, it offers an opportunity to look at your organization through the eyes of your fundraising colleagues and discover new ways to work together.

After reading it, I can see how building a culture of philanthropy helps an organization achieve its goals. And while it’s not the only factor that drives success, effective fundraising is rooted in principles that we can all call on in our nonprofit work. No matter your place in the staff structure, everyone has a role to play in building relationships that advance the mission.

Do you think it’s important to boost awareness of the role of fundraising within your organization? What would building a “culture of philanthropy” look like to you? I’d love to hear additional thoughts and other opinions in the comments.