NONPROFIT 101: 4 Steps to Create a Culture of Philanthropy


Nonprofit EDs/Boards: Are you effectively developing a “Culture of Philanthropy” in your NPO?

In our nonprofit sector, the term “Culture of Philanthropy” gets thrown around frequently as if it is either a badge to be worn or a holy grail to be attained. But, what does Culture of Philanthropy mean, and why is it important?

To varying degrees, each NPO seeks to inspire and involve all of its stakeholders in the greater mission of the organization. This is creating a culture of philanthropy—it is an ever-changing continuum of inspiration and action. The ideal is to continuously evaluate the degrees of success in engaging leadership, staff, board, volunteers, donors, community advocates, and the general public in moving the mission forward. Therefore, a culture of philanthropy is an ever-evolving process, not a destination.

I often share with clients, “Every single nonprofit started with one or more people with an idea to make the world a better place.” The common vernacular for this concept is for each organization to be “mission-driven” or “impact-focused”. My caveat, however, is that while the mission is larger than any one person or group, the activation of that mission relies on the people who buy into the mission.

That said, you can shift your organization’s position along the “culture of philanthropy continuum”. I will share four steps to help you do so:

[if !supportLists]1. [endif]“Think Globally, Act Locally”: With regards to your constituent groups, think “globally” in terms of three factors: mission, action and impact. The best way to illustrate this concept is a modified Venn diagram—each of the individual constituent groups requires their own inspiration and direction while also possessing interlocking contribution to the global mission. Unify your constituents around an inspiring mission, tie their involvement around a challenging goal and specific actions, and continuously share the impact that their involvement and support (not the organization’s) makes on a priority that matters to them. Then, factor down “locally” by creating a plan for each constituent group to identify specific ways that their involvement is essential to making that difference in the world. Remember: Venn, not silos.

[if !supportLists]2. [endif]“Story Time”: People respond to people. Storytelling is the life-blood of your organization’s case statement. What story are you telling? Does it matter to anyone outside of your staff? Does it matter outside of your board? Does it matter to your donors? The key to an effective case is to tell a story of human impact—remember, your NPO was created to make the world a better place. Your org does not have to single-handedly solve a human issue like homelessness or cancer—and none of your constituents expect you to. But, far too many NPOs speak so heavily of need and far too little of the good. Be truthful about results, and also be inspirational in sharing what difference your constituents are making in the world by supporting your organization.

[if !supportLists]3. [endif]“Ask for Help”: NPOs take on the world’s most daunting problems. Donors and other constituents support NPOs out of proxy for their own desire to resolve those daunting problems. Yet, too many NPOs seem shy about asking for what they need. Whether it be financial support, community advocacy, networking/identification of contacts from its constituents, media and community exposure, or willingness for leadership to ask its board for the action that it needs to expand. When asking for help, apply the K.I.S.S. principle: keep it simple and straightforward. “We need to identify 5 prospects who can give a six-figure leadership gift to our campaign.” “We need a media partner to highlight our social impact throughout the year, and to cover our signature event on-site.” “We need to identify three early-career professionals to lead a committee.” Specificity gets what you want and what the mission needs.

[if !supportLists]4. [endif]“It Starts at the Top”: Optics, and involvement, matters. How energized and inspired is your organization’s leaders and board? Do they speak with passion about the mission and impact of the organization? Does the board actively seek out as many opportunities to tell the mission story as do the Executive Director and Development staff? Do the members of the board give preferentially to the organization that it governs, or is it simply one of many priorities and they support it at minimum giving levels? Does the leadership and staff financially support the organization? Optics matter, and donors are savvy in deciding what to support. How does your organization pass the eye test?

If your intention is to create a “culture of philanthropy”; that is, a wholistic culture where your constituents are inspired by mission, dedicated to consistent, meaningful action, and proudly embrace and share the human impact of the work that the organization is doing to make the world a better place, then start with these four steps.

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