Easiest Strategies to Instill a Nonprofit Philanthropy Culture
Can you lead a horse to water and make them drink?
You can if they’re thirsty enough.
How can you create a thirst for instilling a culture of philanthropy in your nonprofit?
So many nonprofits struggle with this challenge. You’ve tried preaching, cajoling and even threatening. “We’re leaving money on the table!” “Development can’t be done successfully in siloes!” “We have to practice what we preach!” People agree with you, in principle. But not in deed.
Alas, you can lead a horse toward philanthropic culture. But getting them to jump in is another thing entirely. If you desperately want to instill a culture of philanthropy, but it’s just not coming together, read these practical tactics to attack the problem from the sides rather than head on.
1. Read Up on Culture of Philanthropy
Check out these resources:
- "Underdeveloped," "Beyond Fundraising: What Does it Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy" and "Fundraising Bright Spots", three seminal reports commissioned by the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund to address chronic fundraising challenges.
- "Development Plans and Fundraising Performance" from the Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy. This takes the qualitative and theoretical work of culture of philanthropy one step further by finding clear, quantifiable links between planning, culture of philanthropy and fundraising performance.
- "Building a Culture of Philanthropy in Your Organization" from Nonprofit Quarterly. A rich and beautiful exposition of what culture of philanthropy means, how it is practiced and who is responsible.
2. Share Fundraising Articles With Boss, Board, Staff and Volunteers
It takes a village to do this work; you need everyone — not just development staff — on the same page. Try “I’d love your take on this for our organization;” “This was super interesting. What do you think?” or “You’re so creative. Wondering how you think we might incorporate these strategies.”
3. Collect Mission Moments to Share With Staff and Board
Mission moments are heartfelt snapshots of your work, often offered in visual or verbal form through the eyes of others. It’s not you extolling the virtues of your organization’s work, but a client, volunteer, donor or community leader sharing their own story and impressions — through just about any channel. Here’s what to collect and/or ask program staff to collect on your behalf:
- Thank-you notes from clients, donors and volunteers.
- Testimonials from users of services and their family members.
- Stories from board members and volunteers witnessing work in action. Arrange site visits, debriefs, etc.
- Stories from program staff about how donor dollars were put to work. Set up regular meetings or weekly,social hours at the end of the day to share stories.
- Photos of all of the above. Make it a practice to take photos and get releases.
- Videos already created for other purposes. Don’t assume board or staff members watch media shared on your website or via email, social media or text; schedule opportunities to share these compelling mission moments.
4. Offer Quick Inspiring Philanthropy Sessions at Board and Staff Meetings
You don’t need to hit people over the head with “We need to build a culture of philanthropy.” Instead, gently lead folks toward what philanthropy is all about. Make them feel good about being part of a love of humankind. Talk more about the “why” of fundraising and donor motivation, not the “how” of solicitation tactics. Don’t call these sessions trainings. No one likes those; they sound like work! Instead, offer brief, 15-minute exercises where folks can talk about what inspires them to be involved in your work.
5. Model an Attitude of Gratitude
In nonprofits with true cultures of philanthropy, everyone practices kindness and helpfulness on a daily basis. Staff don’t just greet each other with “How was your weekend?” but with “How might I help you today?” Simply walking in the doors of these organizations envelops people in a gratitude-infused embrace. Model gratitude by:
- Writing in a donor (or staff) gratitude journal. Focus on what you’re grateful for on a daily basis.
- Keeping a stack of five note cards on your desk. Each day, write a little thank you to someone who was kind to you that week.
- Setting aside 15 minutes each day for thank-you calls, texts or tweets. Tailor your method to the communication preference of your recipient; send to anyone needing an extra hug.
- Giving board members assignments to call and thank donors. This has the added benefit of getting them comfortable talking with donors (and on a path to becoming more comfortable with fundraising).
- Giving program staff assignments to call and thank donors. This helps them see donors as caring human beings who aren’t stuffy, above them or anything else negative they may have imagined.
- Celebrate good times, come on! It’s hard to feel grumpy or unconnected when you’re celebrating. Look for opportunities to share philanthropy (aka love of humanity) in action. Don’t miss these celebratory occasions:
- Reach 100% campaign participation.
- Reach a recruitment goal (e.g., for volunteers, new monthly donors, membership in your legacy society).
- Reach or exceed a fundraising goal.
- Meet a challenge match.
- Receive a huge bequest.
- Receive a significant grant.
- Renew an unprecedented number of lapsed donors.
- Retain more donors than ever.
There are all sorts of things you can do to celebrate. Here are some ideas:
- Crank up the music and have an impromptu dance party, on-site or via Zoom.
- Deliver candy bars or roses to staff and/or board members.
- Deliver awards via online certificates suitable for printing and framing — you can do this any time! Here I personalized gratitude toward staff when I led the development and marketing team at the San Francisco Food Bank; no one should be left out!
Not only can you do these things, you must!
You are the one person, or department, actually charged with living and breathing philanthropy on a daily basis. It’s in your job description. You are the philanthropy facilitator. Sure, culture often emanates from the top down. But if that’s not happening where you work right now, don't give up.
You have an important role to play, so play it. One strategy at a time. If you’re lucky, the culture will begin to shift — unperceptively at first, yet stronger the more committed you become to trying as many of these tactics as possible — until one day you find yourself with a resilient culture where everyone is sharing the love on a regular basis.
If you like craft fairs, baseball games, art openings, vocal and guitar, and political conversation, you’ll like to hang out with Claire Axelrad. Claire, J.D., CFRE, will inspire you through her philosophy of philanthropy, not fundraising. After a 30-year development career that earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award, Claire left the trenches to begin her coaching/teaching practice, Clairification. Claire is also a featured expert and chief fundraising coach for Bloomerang, She’ll be your guide, so you can be your donor’s guide on their philanthropic journey. A member of the California State Bar and graduate of Princeton University, Claire currently resides in San Francisco.