Unite Here Image Photo by Jamie Thrower

Inside Out Fundraising

How to Create a Culture of Philanthropy by Treating Systems Instead of Symptoms

Five primary points of intervention for identifying problems and moving toward change.

From the
Curated Collection

In Inside Out Fundraising, Mark Rovner and Alia McKee are calling for nothing short of a transformation in how fundraising is valued and held in organizations. Transformation is change that is profound, radical and sustainable; change that fundamentally and indelibly alters the very nature of something.

We agree that transformation is what’s needed when it comes to raising resources to support social change. Fundraising and resource generation have long been pain points in a sector where there is real ambivalence about money and power. Many of us have experienced how fundraising is viewed as a “necessary evil” separate from the “real work” of making social change.

The stress of fundraising is cited by many executive directors as the number-one cause of burnout, and even a reason for leaving the sector entirely. At the other end of the spectrum, emerging leaders often call out fundraising as one of the job responsibilities for which they feel the least prepared when stepping into the executive role. And in a recent national survey, leaders of color reported feeling less ready to fundraise than white respondents, even though they were more likely to see themselves as visionary and able to relate to their organization’s target population.

Social change leaders who feel powerful in other circumstances, are often resistant to engaging in fundraising. We have deeply ingrained and cultural understandings of the propriety of asking for money, and these norms vary widely by race, ethnicity, class and gender. For some, asking people for money touches on personal experiences of scarcity. They confide that asking for money makes them feel like beggars. Meanwhile, fundraisers in social justice organizations report being treated like the “dirty money people” by their colleagues. This, no doubt, contributes to the high rates of turnover in the development position.

It will take more than new tools and tactics to help organizations break out of these deep-seated, chronic challenges. A growing consensus has emerged that what’s needed is a profoundly different stance towards fundraising. It’s an approach that’s captured in the concept of a “culture of philanthropy,” where money and mission are aligned, responsibility for raising resources is shared, and fund development is not just a financial transaction with supporters.

But too little has been written about how to help organizations achieve the kind of transformation and culture change this entails.

Clearly, a key ingredient is leadership, and not just at the top level. Developing a culture of philanthropy involves building strong teams across functional silos and helping them find their place of power with raising resources.

Yet culture change is hard. It’s difficult to even see what you’re trying to change when you’re inside it. And all systems have homeostasis. If you only push on one part, it may look like it’s changing, but before long the new practices erode and the organization resumes its familiar grooves.

This is why so many fundraising tactics and plans fail.

In recognizing this, and turning their attention to what it takes to transform systems and culture, Mark and Alia are jumpstarting a much-needed conversation.

A common refrain in the social change sector is “be the change.” How can raising resources to fund social change be part of the change? This conversation is long overdue.

Through their decades of experience coaching, training and partnering with scores of progressive organizations in their efforts to raise resources, Mark and Alia have learned a lot about what it takes. In this piece, they generously share these lessons, and extend an invitation to all of us to share ours.

Robert Gass
Rockwood Leadership Institute
& Social Transformation Project

Linda Wood
Senior Director
Haas Leadership Initiatives,
Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund