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Culture is Changing: Fundraising Needs to Change With It

Is creating a “culture of philanthropy” the answer?

As nonprofits struggle to secure resources, one approach that’s attracting attention is developing a “culture of philanthropy.” But what does that mean? And can it make a difference?

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Like many people in the nonprofit world, I started out as a fundraiser. I worked for a development director, however, who had very different ideas about how that job should be done.

While her peers boasted about “bringing in a $2 million gift,” my boss refused to take credit for donations, saying these were the result of the organization’s work—not hers. When the board tried to link her salary to money raised, she showed them how making fundraising everyone’s responsibility led to more donations. And when she was left out of planning meetings, she argued that decoupling development from these activities was short-sighted and the antithesis of smart strategy.

It turns out that she was way ahead of her time. Today, what once seemed radical is now a flash point in discussions about how fundraising is changing. At the center of those discussions is the concept of moving from “fundraising” to developing a “culture of philanthropy.”

What’s that? According to some of the development field’s leading experts—Simone Joyaux, Gail Perry, Stephanie Roth, Karla Williams, Terry Axelrod, Marla Cornelius, among others—a culture of philanthropy is one in which everyone’s a fundraiser: board, staff and executive director. It’s about relationships, not just money. It’s as much about keeping donors, as acquiring new ones, and seeing them as having more than just money to bring to the table. And it’s one in which fund development is a valued and mission-aligned component of everything the organization does—not a one-off.

Why is it important? As they say in Silicon Valley, culture eats strategy for breakfast. Translation: Organizations’ success or failure is determined less by their tactics than by the values, practices, communication patterns and behavior of people who work there.

For nonprofits with a culture of philanthropy, that means fundraising is seen less as a transactional tactic and more of a way of operating—one that reflects the definition of philanthropy: A love of humankind and a voluntary joining of resources and action for the public good.

Today, people are connecting with nonprofits in all kinds of ways, not only by writing checks. Increasingly, they get involved through social media, volunteering, blogs, meet ups, petitions, activism—and they want some kind of relationship with the organization and its mission. According to Pamela Grow and Sarah Mansberger, “that means organizations need to create environments where their entire community—donors, clients, staff and partners—have ample opportunities to engage with the mission in authentic and meaningful ways.”

In short, fundraising can no longer be decoupled from engagement.

New generations are embracing these changes, saying they want to see philanthropy be more transparent, democratized and relational. They want organizations to move away from rigid hierarchical structures towards ecosystem models with more collaborative and fluid structures. Some nonprofits, for example, are tearing down the walls between the fundraising, communications, marketing and program departments to make them collaborative and complementary, not siloed.

Proponents say a culture of philanthropy can help increase giving levels and donor retention; strengthen trust, cooperation and engagement among board and staff members; and align mission and program goals more seamlessly with revenue generation. And, by sharing this philosophy with the larger community, it can help “lift all nonprofit boats in the community,” says Paul Lagasse in Advancing Philanthropy.

Not everyone is convinced, however, pointing to organizations that are quite successful in raising funds without this culture in place. And, there’s not a lot of hard evidence showing how it adds value to an organization. Others say it’s “touchy feely” or too time consuming when organizations need funds now. Still others have problems with the word “philanthropy” itself because of its association with traditional philanthropic institutions.

Whatever you may believe about the approach, or the terminology, it’s clear that the concept of a culture of philanthropy is generating a lot of conversation and attention in the face of nonprofits’ chronic struggles to find better ways to raise the resources they need to fuel their work. Luckily, the concept is still in its nascency, giving the field an important opportunity to weigh in on what it means, its value and its potential as a new framework for development.

To that end, we’re asking you for your ideas. How would you define a culture of philanthropy? How do you know your organization has one? Do you know of organizations experimenting with this approach? Where have you seen this working? Tell us below or write to me at

Cynthia Gibson is a writer and consultant to a wide range of foundations and major nonprofits on strategic planning, program development, evaluation, and communications. She is on Twitter @Cingib.