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April 2, 2013

What’s a Culture of Philanthropy and How Can I Get One?

By Leyna Bernstein

Unless you have been on vacation without Wi-Fi for the past month, you’ve heard plenty about the new study on the difficulties of building a sustainable fundraising program. Entitled “UnderDeveloped: A National Survey of Challenges Facing Nonprofit Fundraising”, the study* (click here to download a copy) doesn’t break new ground, but is significant in that it puts hard data and credibility behind what many of us already know. The study’s findings show that nonprofit fundraising is often under-resourced, misunderstood, delegated solely to development staff, and poorly integrated into strategic and programmatic planning. (That slight breeze you feel is caused by all the heads nodding in agreement upon reading the study.)

In addition to allowing thousands of beleaguered fundraisers a moment of vindication, the study also contains a set of calls to action for our sector. One of the most significant of these is that accountability for fundraising results should be shared across the organization. The study supports the concept that organizations with a culture of philanthropy are the most effective at fundraising over the long-haul. In these organizations, fundraising isn’t something vague that “those people” in the development department do – it is embraced by everyone from the board to front-line staff. 

So what does it take to create a culture of philanthropy? Having a culture of philanthropy means that fundraising is viewed and valued as a mission-aligned program of the organization. Karen Osborne, President of a consulting firm in Mt. Kisco, NY says, “Creating a culture of philanthropy and stewardship is not about creating an organization of solicitors—but rather creating a group of people who believe in the power of philanthropy and the organization’s mission, and who embrace their role in that work.” Troy Arnold, Director of Development for the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco, says, “We often think of culture as something ‘squishy’ or qualitative, when in fact it is achieved through highly quantitative tasks. To build and sustain a culture of philanthropy takes a lot of planning, and the implementation of specific policies and practices.” 

A good place to start if you want to build or strengthen your organization’s culture of philanthropy is with your board. Provide the study to each board member, and carve out an hour at a board meeting during which board members can talk about the study and their impressions of how its findings apply to your organization. 

Here are other suggestions for building a culture of philanthropy in your organization:

• Performance Evaluations: Include development goals in annual performance evaluations for non-development staff;
• Finance and Development: Have your Director of Development sit on the board’s Finance Committee;
• Development Plan: Share the goals and strategies of your annual development plan with all staff;
• Board Accountability: Include an amount the board is responsible for raising in your development budget;
• Program Planning: Have members of your development staff participate in program planning activities so that your investors’ (donors and funders) voices are included in the process;
• 100% Board Giving: Ask that every member of your board consider your organization one of their top philanthropic priorities;
• Staff Giving: Conduct an annual campaign amongst your staff members, with your Executive Director and Director of Development leading the way.
• Stewardship: Steward your internal donors – ensure that your board and staff members know first-hand how much impact their financial gifts make.

What are your ideas for helping an organization build a culture of philanthropy?

*A joint project of CompassPoint and the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund

Comments Comments

7 reader comments on What’s a Culture of Philanthropy and How Can I Get One?.

This is a terrific post, Leyna. I actually built my membership program around many of the findings of Underdeveloped and our trainings include, not just tactical fundraising, but organizational health as well. I love your suggestions. Early on in my career, I attended a fundraising workshop on behalf of a client. There were about 20 nonprofits represented in the room and one organization stood out: it was an organization serving abused women and they had sent two program staffers (everyone else had sent fundraising staff). I spoke to them at length and it was such an eye-opening experience for them. I’ve made it a point since then to open up the membership program and my courses to all staff - and stress that they’ll have better results if they do.

Great post Leyna! It’s so very important to instill an organization-wide culture of philanthropy.  Another way is to think of this as a culture of customer service. Or of relationship building. Your donor only knows one organization.  They don’t care about your internal org. chart. If they speak to the receptionist and are treated rudely, that impacts their desire to invest with you. So if you have siloed departments, it works to your disadvantage.

Also, philanthropy is about “love of humankind.” It’s about values, not money. That’s why the motto for my business, Clairification, has always been “philanthropy, not fundraising.” Money is merely a symbol of what it can accomplish.  Talk to your supporters about accomplishments, not money.

I was part of strategic planning process for an organization of which programs generally had all these growth concepts and would end the presentation with, “Would like to hear how development could fund this project.” Finance would sandwich that statement with, “We just count the money not make it,” and the board was made up of retired businessmen, who were on limited incomes. This story doesn’t have to continue, we all know the ending.

I’ve also been with one that fully understood the value of being involved in making their programs and efforts a success, it was based on the organization’s core values and mission that the employees believed in that moved everyone toward a culture of philanthropy, everyone was involved in making it work and was actually one big team - reaching incredible success. The suggestions mentioned were every bit of this organization’s process of absorbing the culture of philanthropy into their process from top down with adding philanthropy into evaluations as well as involving development on planning and finance meetings - when will they ever learn that it is the only way to succeed.


This is so concise and well written. Thank you! I will definitely keep your advice in mind as I continue on with my Board service.

Another way to build the culture is make sure that your development plan is part of any strategic planning process that involves input from both the board and a large portion of the staff (not just development staff).  As you mentioned include development staff in your program planning from the start.  Program and development staff need to work together as a team not as separate entities.

With one group recently we took time out of the all staff meeting to do some brainstorming together re fundraising opportunities.

Thanks for your feedback, Jim. I think it is very helpful to differentiate between fundraising (a tactic) and development (a way of operating.)


Excellent post on the concept of a culture of philanthropy.  The term gets bandied around a lot, but I have found that many organizations still think of development as being synonymous with fundraising when in reality they are related but very different.  Fundraising (imho) is an important part (but just a part) of development which a addresses a much larger set of strategic issues.  Another way I often think of the distinction is that development involves strateg(ies) of which fundraising is a tactic.  Thanks for highlighting this issue in such a cogent and concise manner!

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