Does your “culture eat strategy for breakfast”? (Nonprofit Leadership)

A college foundation director recently lamented to me that during a campus leadership meeting, she was asked why her department wasn’t engaging alumni. She responded, “We will, but please give us alumni data.”

“Absolutely not, I’m not turning over that information,” was the response she received from the college’s CIO.

A friend likes to regale me with stories about her cultural organization’s chief marketing officer. “He puts up a roadblock at every turn. Our design projects go to the end of the queue. We’re denied access to visitor data, so we have a hard time growing membership. He won’t include membership messages in the quarterly publication.”

I hear these tales of woe over and over. I’m sure you have your own.

Nonprofit Leadership

It’s frustrating and infuriating, because at the end of the day, money isn’t being given. Missions aren’t being met nearly as well as they could be.

It’s easy to dismiss the problem as people just being difficult, for whatever their own particular reasons.

The deeper problem, though, could be something else entirely: a lack of a culture of philanthropy in these organizations. In this first post of a two-part series, we explore what a culture of philanthropy is. Next up we’ll give our thoughts on how to instill such a culture in your nonprofit.

What Exactly Are We Talking About?

A culture of philanthropy is about an organization’s attitudes toward philanthropy in general, and the development process in particular. I’ve read a bunch of different definitions, but I particularly like the definition promulgated by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE):

“A culture of philanthropy fosters relationships that share a common understanding, appreciation, and responsibility for the importance of the joy of giving and receiving for the enhancement of the institution.”

So what does a culture of philanthropy actually look like?

In a recent report on the topic, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund articulated four core components:

Shared Responsibility for Development

This means that everyone – and I mean everyone – has a role to play. It’s not just the development staff. Development is the responsibility of the board and the executive director, program directors, and even line staff.

Years ago I worked for a community health center. We had a long-time receptionist who greeted everyone who walked through the door. I swear he knew everyone who came through the door, and welcomed them as friends. He was, in a very real way, the face of the organization.

I once complimented him on his work, energy, and warm demeanor. He told me (I’m paraphrasing here) “People get nervous going to the doctor. I want them to feel welcomed and comfortable. Plus my desk is right by donor wall. Many of the people who come in have their names on that wall – the names of people who built this place. And hopefully others will add their names in the future.”

He got it. He understood that while he wasn’t responsible for soliciting (although he was always one of the first to volunteer for one of my department’s events), he had a role to play.

Integration and Alignment with Mission

Development needs to be seen not as a support department (or worse, the group that puts on parties), but as mission critical. Philanthropy should be woven into every aspect of the organization, and every department should be supportive, just as the development department supports other parts of the organization.

Remember the infuriating CMO I mentioned in the story at the top of this post? I recently interviewed his counterpart at an almost identical organization in another part of the country. She could not have been more different.

“It’s my job to make sure our development team succeeds,” she stated. My team and I have to make sure they are telling their stories in the best way possible. That their materials have the look and feel of our entire brand, and that we’re weaving philanthropic messages in everything we as an organization put out.”

Talk about night and day, huh?

A Focus on Fundraising as Engagement

Organizations with a healthy culture of philanthropy understand that fundraising is no longer separated from engagement. We connect with our constituents in myriad ways across many different channels: as active followers or influencers on social media; volunteering; advocacy, board members, and as consumers of services.

Successful fundraising happens when individuals are engaged at many different levels, usually before they give their first gift. Your approach needs to be holistic: don’t devise isolated strategies for different purposes: volunteering, giving money, buying tickets, etc. Think about whole persons who care about what you do, and create ways in which that community of friends can engage with you and each other.

Strong Donor Relationships

A sure determinant of a culture of philanthropy is an environment in which donors are seen as authentic partners in the delivery of mission, not just targets or dollar signs. These organizations establish systems to build strong relationships and support donors’ connection to the work.

Nonprofit Leadership

But you know this by another name: stewardship. I’m not talking about sending people a newsletter or annual report. No, I’m talking about meaningful engagement in the work of your organization. If you’re working in the performing arts, invite donors to dress rehearsals. In healthcare, create opportunities for donors to interact with doctors or other caregivers, for educational sessions on any number of topics. Invite donors to periodic roundtable conversations with your executive director to discuss issues facing the organization. There is no shortage of creative ideas on how to meaningfully engage your donor partners throughout the year.

Check out the second part of this series for my thoughts and ideas about how to instill and sustain a culture of philanthropy in your organization.

But until then, remember this: you can have all of the best development strategies in the world, but as Peter Drucker once wrote, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

If you want to learn more about how I work with nonprofit organizations and businesses that want do well by doing good, visit my company’s website, or that of my affiliate partner, MOK2. Even better, shoot me an email.

image: iStock

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