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The “Culture of Philanthropy” Problem

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In my readings about the state of fundraising in nonprofits, one of the conditions for success that people seem to be talking about is the importance of having a culture of philanthropy. A lot of us have a gut feeling as to whether or not our organizations have it but why is this such a problem in the first place?

In UnderDeveloped: A National Study of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising a culture of philanthropy is defined as:

“Most people in the organization (across positions) act as ambassadors and engage in relationship-building. Everyone promotes philanthropy and can articulate a case for giving. Fund development is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization. Organizational systems are established to support donors. The executive director is committed and personally involved in fundraising.”

When our organizations lack these conditions, I think a lot of this comes down to two things: 1) people not really understanding what fundraising involves (that it is more than making the ask), and 2) ingrained, negative attitudes about money.

When you start talking about fundraising, people may think you are talking about getting them to make cold calls to ask for money. For some, the ultimate terror might be soliciting their friends raising issues of obligations, awkwardness, or favors being owed. Personally, I have never expected a board member or volunteer to do anything that made them very uncomfortable. There are other ways they can participate such as being advocates, making introductions, being watchful for opportunities, thanking donors, etc.

I once worked with a board where some members were flat-out against any kind of fundraising. They didn’t want us to do any direct-response appeals because they were afraid that “people might be offended” by our asking them to support our cause.

I had made a mistake in assuming that everyone would understand the reasons for our strategies so some background on our rationale was clearly needed. I am happy to report that we were able to move forward with our original development plan and it was so successful that one year later those same board members had completely changed their position.

And then there are people’s sometimes unhealthy attitudes about money. Dirty, dirty, money. For some folks, money is a direct representation of perceived social power and status. For some, money is just not something you talk about in public. This can set up some very interesting dynamics when these people are asked to help with fundraising. The best way to approach this situation is to re-frame the topic. As Don Draper would say, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

What should the conversation be? First, get everyone to put away their tin cups. We are not begging. We are inviting people who, for the most part, have already demonstrated philanthropic tendencies, to invest in the mission. Think of it like a company and its stockholders except the dividends are positive change and impact in something the donor cares about.

In Hank Rosso’s Achieving Excellence in Fundraising, Eugene Temple writes that, “Mission is what gives us the privilege to ask for philanthropic support” and “Fundraising is the gentle art of teaching the joy of giving.”

Rosso also places great emphasis on fundraising as a servant to philanthropy. “Fundraising is at its best when it strives to match the needs of the not-for-profit organization with the contributor’s need and desire to give. The practice of gift-seeking…is justified when it is used as a responsible invitation, guiding contributors to make the kind of gift that will meet their own special needs and add greater meaning to their lives.”

Now, who wouldn’t enjoy doing that!

For me, fundraising and communications go together like peanut butter and jelly – delicious & filling!

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