16 Ideas for Leading Your Organization's Culture Shift
Does this sound anything like you?
Are you feeling unappreciated and, at times, even hopeless? Are you working for seemingly doomed organizations and their revolving doors of staff (especially development directors)? Is your organization mired in dysfunction from the inside out? Are you trying to go forward, yet barely moving an inch?
There’s a reason (or many reasons) why my friend Joan Garry’s phrase, “Nonprofits are messy,” resonates with all of us. Because we’ve all been there.
And we know this much is true: We are very, very, very messy.
It goes beyond the roller coaster of fits and starts (or, even worse, the dreaded hamster wheel). It’s more than the good ol’ spray-and-pray fundraising mashup of events, grants and fundraising appeals that are rooted in good intentions but don’t get much further than that. Sadly, this disorder afflicts one nonprofit organization after another, and it shows little sign of slowing down.
The trouble is, we all too often are looking for the answers in the next bright and shiny new object—i.e., how to attract Millennial donors, the next Facebook widget, a social media campaign, or (fill in the blank).
For the love of all that is great about fundraising, get off it already!
Because the real answer is a lot simpler and more basic.
Do you remember the “UnderDeveloped A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising” report from 2013? In excruciating detail, it documented the dismal state of affairs in the field of fundraising, including heavy turnover and vacancies in development director positions.
In the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund follow-up report, “Beyond Fundraising: What Does It Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy,” author Cynthia Gibson noted that great fundraising—you know, the sustainable kind—isn’t the result of adopting new tools or techniques, but incorporating a culture of philanthropy.
Her belief (and mine, too) is this: When everyone is on board from the get-go, not only will your fundraising flow, but you’ll have happier, healthier staff, volunteers and board members.
Happiness may seem secondary in importance, but I can assure you that it isn’t—especially when the art of fundraising (the science of it) relies on cooperation, collaboration and mutual understanding. Keep happiness at the forefront of your organization’s collective mind, and, ultimately, you’ll have a healthy, sustainable nonprofit. You’ll be better equipped to achieve all of your fundraising goals (and then some!) for today, tomorrow and the distant future.
So, it’s all about your organization’s culture. Not all that shiny tinsel distracting you, but what goes on between the walls. And affecting your organization’s culture shift absolutely will not happen overnight. It takes patience, consistency and commitment.
And, as the development director (or executive director), you primarily are responsible for building a culture of philanthropy. So how do you become a dedicated key player? I implore you:
Don’t ask for permission to lead.
Just don’t. Take hold of those reins and be prepared to lead your organization’s staff, board and, yes, even your executive director, in changing a culture of sadness and desperation into one of blossoming possibilities, outcomes and optimism.
In keeping with the spirit of honesty that I always have employed, I’m going to just shoot it to you straight: Changing your organization’s culture will not be easy, because changing any culture is never easy.
A culture comes to be when things have been one way (in this case, the wrong way) for far too long. So yes, it undoubtedly will take some time, and it certainly will take persistence. But there are some surprisingly easy and fun ways you can make it happen, and once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be on a roll with butter.
Here are some of my very best tips (directly from the pages of my book, "Simple Development Systems").
- Regularly send out links to some of the best fundraising articles, or subscribe your staff, volunteers and board members to a weekly newsletter, such as “The Grow Report,” or a daily email website, such as The Agitator. Better yet, engage your staff, board and volunteers in a “The Basics & More” course.
- Integrate a short training into every staff and board meeting in order to foster a spirit of inclusion and collaboration. You’ll find plenty of examples in the new book, “Train Your Board (and Everyone Else) to Raise Money: A Cookbook of Easy-to-Use Fundraising Exercises,” by Andrea Kihlstedt and Andy Robinson.
- I’ve found it helpful to ask a program staff member his or her advice on an appeal letter for the simple reasons that A) people love it when you ask for their advice, and B) it’s a lesson in the importance of story gathering. Your program staff is a potential treasure trove of ace storytellers with their own unique perspectives and experiences. They’ve got loads worth sharing, and you’re in the prime position to unlock some of their wisdom.
- When you receive special “thank you’s” from clients, copy them and send them on to board members. It’ll have them feeling good, and witnessing such gratitude may even motivate them to pursue more active roles in your organization if they haven’t already.
- Communicate your gratitude on the regular. Utilize a company like Send Out Cards, or keep a desk drawer full of inexpensive cards (Trader Joe’s has a nice line of jaunty, fun selections), to send birthday, anniversary or “just because” cards to your board members. They’ll dig it, because who wouldn’t?
- Schedule regular “Thank-a-Thons,” where your board members pen handwritten thank-you notes or sit down and make individual thank-you phone calls to donors. Infuse this with a dose of fun by scheduling 20 to 30 minutes within the course of a board meeting and serving refreshments.
- Spend some one-on-one time with your board members with the intent of getting to know them individually. Find out their stories and begin with this crucial question: So, why did you get involved with us?
- Take the opportunity to snap some photos of your organization engaged in the wonderful work that it does and capture progress through pictures. Then, send or hand-deliver the photo and tell the donor all about it. He or she will be delighted to see your organization in action! (via Veritus)
- Ask your CEO or executive director to write a handwritten note to your “A” level donors, saying how much their support is making a difference. The handwritten aspect, especially today, is more than just “a special touch”—it holds a lot of weight. (via Veritus)
- At every staff and board meeting, make it a point to share your latest story, whether it’s about one of your agency’s clients, a very special donor or even a recent visitor to your organization who was wowed. Some refer to these as “mission moments.” Your sharing will inspire staff members to join in and share their stories. A culture of story sharing and storytelling is fundamental in fostering a culture of philanthropy.
- Shadow a member of your program staff for several hours—or even a full day. Better yet, invite program staff to donor and foundation visits!
- Open your organization’s doors to your donors and invite them on in. Think beyond the usual guided tours. What about inviting a donor to your regular board or staff meetings? (And definitely think about including a donor on your board.) Most importantly, invite the individual to share his or her perspective.
- Install a “share-your-story” page on your organization’s website as a platform for the telling, sharing and collecting of stories, and regularly direct your donors and supporters to it by way of your emails and social media.
- Think outside of the proverbial box. I recently attended a United Way branding workshop on behalf of a client. Among the participants, I was delighted to learn that one organization had sent program staff in lieu of marketing or development staff. I spent some time chatting with them, and it was clearly an eye-opening experience for them in terms of how they could better share their clients’ stories with their development department.
- Does 100 percent of your board contribute financially? Because board members need to be contributing. You’ll need to find out what works best for you, but I have found that speaking with board members on an individual basis typically yields far better results. Starting your monthly giving with your board members also is a great way to both introduce monthly giving and encourage your board members to stretch their gifts.
- Create a habit of celebrating every little success. When you reach 100 percent board participation, celebrate it! When your retention rate climbs over 60 percent, celebrate it! Have a pizza party at your next board meeting or break out a bottle of bubbly! A board member has brought in three new donors? Send him or her a thank-you gift or present a token of your gratitude publicly at your next board meeting. Remember to have fun and, in the words of Tom Peters, “celebrate what you want to see more of.”
Does this list cover it all? Nope, not by a long shot.
I don’t think any list actually can encompass everything—because a lot of this fundraising business involves finding stuff out on your own, through trial and error. You may stumble and fall along the way, but you always can get up, brush yourself off and keep on going. But these tips should, at the very least, help you in getting your culture shift off the ground.
What else matters? Knowing your organization’s numbers, knowing your retention rate, and educating your staff and board.
You know how to do this. I know you do.
And you owe it to your organization to step up to your leadership and be the change that you want to see. How are you leading your organization’s culture shift, and how are you doing it every day?
Pamela Grow is the publisher of The Grow Report, the author of Simple Development Systems and the founder of Simple Development Systems: The Membership Program and Basics & More fundraising fundamentals e-courses. She has been helping small nonprofits raise dramatically more money for over 15 years, and was named one of the 50 Most Influential Fundraisers by Civil Society magazine, and one of the 40 Most Effective Fundraising Consultants by The Michael Chatman Giving Show.