In describing the dynamics of complex organizations, Peter Drucker famously pointed out that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His point is this: when an organization’s stated plans, however smart they may be, come into conflict with the attitudes and values of its people, it’s no contest. Attitudes and values prevail.

My thesis is that when it comes to fundraising, Mr. Drucker is entirely correct—and that his observation can be a useful one. Recognizing the power of culture and promoting a culture that embraces philanthropic giving can be the key to a nonprofit’s delivery of core mission, growth, and financial sustainability.

As fundraising professionals, we need to understand exactly what a culture of philanthropy is and to think hard about ways we can work to nurture this kind of culture within the organizations we serve.

So What Is a Culture of Philanthropy?

Simply stated, an organization is blessed with a culture of philanthropy when its people share a belief in the vital importance of philanthropic giving and behave, day-in and day-out, in a way that reflects that belief. It’s a simple idea, but with far-reaching implications. Consider a few of the attitudes that prevail in this kind of organization:

  • Agreement that everyone, in all departments, has a role to play in raising resources.
  • Recognition that those whose main responsibility is to raise funds are just as important as those whose main responsibility is to design and deliver programming.
  • A view that giving is more than transactional. The aim is a relationship with the donor, often through a passion for particular program, not just a commitment of funds.
  • A concern with keeping donors, not just acquiring them.
  • Attention to fundraising in all important decisions and discussions, not just when it’s at the top of the day’s agenda.

To make these ideas more vivid, consider two examples, one of an organization exemplifying a culture of philanthropy and one most clearly not. The first is a museum of contemporary art. Here program officers, in this case curators, know and talk with development staff. They fill fundraisers in on exhibition planning and discuss pending creative decisions and their donor appeal. They also share news over lunch and bump into each other all the time on the backstairs—a lucky instance of architectural design fostering cross-pollination. The result is that when fundraisers are armed with the curatorial perspective as they talk to donors, it’s with a vivid, substantive sense of the way the museum is living its mission in the moment—and the donors respond

We realized early on that delivering on our mission to build a museum dedicated to the accomplishments of women was the fundamental reason our members and donors were, and are, deeply engaged. We built our résumé of excellent projects to validate our organization. And our direct response team brilliantly advised us on how to message our program specifically to attract members and donors. Our efforts resulted in outstanding results.

Joan Wages, Former CEO, National Women’s History Museum

Now take the counterexample, as it happens, a small college. Here, the development team (purely for reasons of space) is located in an annex off campus. The goals that drive their professional lives are arrived at by simple mathematics: The Board subtracts expected revenue from approved expenditures and notifies the chief development officer of the gap to be met. This gap is predictably larger each year. When talking with the development staff (but only when talking with them), the president praises their efforts. Turnover is disappointingly high.

We need to make clear that development must be part of the conversation around the economics of the institution. It’s imperative that development plays a central role in strategic planning. We need our Board and CEO’s to understand why the development voice is critical to strategic and economic decisions. We can’t build a culture of philanthropy without a seat at the table.

Courtney Surls, Vice President for Development and Alumni Relations, American University

If you think through these two contrasting cases, you see that there are fundamentally different paradigms at work. In one organization, fundraising is seen as integral to the mission. The people who bring the mission to life by funding it are just as essential as those who bring it to life through teaching, research, curating, or the provision of services. The two can’t work well—or exist—without each other, and they know it.

In the other organization, people may say they feel the same, but if they do, they are not reflecting that belief in the way they work. They are viewing the development program essentially as a cash machine—and are likely to find over time that the pay-outs it delivers are not what they hoped.

Actionable Steps

The advantages of a culture of philanthropy are striking. They range from deeper satisfaction and higher productivity on the part of fundraisers, to longer, stronger bonds with donors—bonds which lead to larger gifts over time. But if you are not lucky enough to have this kind of culture in place, how can you move toward it? After all, we are talking mainly about issues of attitude—hard to measure and tricky to change.

The first key step is bold advocacy. In a successful nonprofit, everyone is thinking about making the mission fundable—about connecting the important work you do with the people who will understand, value, and support it. As fundraisers, it’s our job to speak up and make this clear, even if it takes a while for the message to sink in.

Beyond evangelizing, here are some additional concrete steps to consider:

  • Demand leadership from the top—ensure that your CEO clearly understands the culture you need to create and clearly communicates his or her expectations. The CEO’s leadership and commitment to building a culture of philanthropy across program, development, and central administration is the most critical success factor.
  • Create “relationship infrastructure”— Want the Board to know program heads, scholars and development staff? Pair them off in partnerships. Want your curators or faculty to talk with your fundraisers? Plan weekly brown bags. Relationships take time to build. So pick a time and put it on the calendar.
  • Make it official—If you want staff of every stripe to support fundraising and engage in collaboration, make it part of their job descriptions and performance reviews. This may seem like just a formality, but it will mean no one can ever say that meeting with a donor or pitching in on a grant proposal is “not part of their job.”
  • Seeking collaboration? Choose co-location—Do not settle for annexing your development staff. In fact, work to embed them—physically and organizationally—into the heart of the operation. It’s a step worth taking just for the invaluable things they’ll overhear, not to mention the change in attitude you’ll see as fundraisers feel less like hired guns and more like part of the family.
  • Hire well—As you recruit new team members, make it a priority to create a culture of philanthropy, and over time you will build a cadre of people who get the idea and live it.

Of course, it’s also essential to remember that cultural change takes time. If there were a sixth concrete step to follow, it would be Patience. But that’s part of a culture of philanthropy too. The goal is not a record-breaking year. It is an organization sustained by a community of donors who are deeply committed over the long term because they are deeply connected to the organization’s people and what they stand for.                                

In their quest for true innovation and long-term donor investment, organizations in the nonprofit sector must define and apply their values base. They should organize their internal systems and community outreach to maximize the understanding of, response to, and impact of those values. Only then will these organizations achieve full intersection with supporters, and engage them in a lasting and mutually satisfying relationship.

Kay Sprinkel Grace, Beyond Fund Raising