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Development professionals often talk about a “Culture of Philanthropy.” But what does that really mean? It seems to be the holy grail of all large philanthropic organizations. But how do you actually achieve it?

While the precise definition may be slightly different for some organizations based on sector, size, and existing initiatives, at its core a culture of philanthropy simply implies that you have a community of people committed to telling and supporting relevant stories to enhance each other’s wellbeing.

An engaged community steeped in philanthropic values is a living force. Not a piggy bank to shake now and then, but the legs, hands, and heart of everything your organization does. It’s powerful, self-sustaining, and enables entirely new possibilities.

So how do you achieve it?

Like most things worth doing, it doesn’t happen overnight. Cultural evolutions can take multiple years, especially in the fundraising industry where people move between organizations at such a high frequency.

Think about building a culture of philanthropy as a process more than an endpoint.

The first step is redefining how your organization views your community. Many organizations think in terms of silos: donors vs. alumni vs. faculty vs. staff vs. students, etc. They treat these silos very differently. Messaging often flows at them rather than between them, eliminating the chance to share a common experience.

The reality is an organization has one community.

From leadership to entry positions, billionaire alums to first-year students, it’s imperative that everyone in your community is provided the opportunity to engage, contribute, and share. Organizations must adopt a “first amongst equals” mentality, understanding that one donor making a huge gift means nothing without others doing their part.

The second step is to ensure your organization’s vision, mission, and values are not only clearly established, but top-of-mind. Every member of your community should embrace the vision of where you’re all going and why, the mission that drives the actions to get there, and the values that will always be preserved.

Re-establishing or reaffirming these narrative elements gets people excited for where they work, reminds people of why they work, and catalyzes conversation between your organization and community. There are many ways to tastefully bring these elements front and center: designing posters that clearly outline each, including them in email signatures, featuring them in the header of your website, and filtering them out into the larger world through your language, brand, and actions.

Here are two great articles published on this topic: How to Connect Employees With Your Company’s Mission and Are your employees engaged with your company values?. While both of these speak to the private sector, they are also applicable to the nonprofit sector.

Once you’ve redefined your community and provided a common story through your vision, mission, and values, you’ve essentially “prepared the soil for cultivation.” Cultivation is the “act of improving,” and improving your philanthropic culture is the entire subject of this conversation!

Of course, this is fun and easy to talk about, but I suspect you’re here to do something about it. In order to provide a framework for a strong culture of philanthropy, you must focus your energy on the five pillars: Inclusion, Transparency, Empowerment, Collaboration, and Celebration.


The 5 Pillars

Community members should always feel like they belong (inclusion), believe in the purpose their community exists (transparency), have opportunities to tell their story (empowerment), have the power to help others tell their stories (collaboration), and feel like their contributions are valued (celebration).

Each of these pillars requires specific attention, but together they provide the foundation for uniting your community with a common philanthropic purpose.

1. Inclusion

Inclusion begins with the decision you made earlier to see every person with value and as a single community contributing differently, but equally.

Everything that’s considered and executed in your fundraising strategy must be inclusive. It’s essential that development offices break down their silos and integrate within the institution as a whole. You can’t completely separate development from marketing, donor relations, the alumni office, etc.

For too long development has worked in a vacuum to raise money while being shunned as “fundraisers” that nobody wants to work alongside. This is a byproduct of the past 30 years where the pressure to secure donations has forced development offices to look at the majority of donors as database numbers rather than as individuals. It’s created a dynamic where affiliates want to protect their communities from a barrage of marketing tactics that might dissuade people engaged in their story.

This paradigm must change. Working together yields much better results overall and with greater efficiency. A golden thread should be pulled through each of the silos within your organization to unite them together around complimentary collaboration.

If each of these groups is united by the mission, vision, and values, each can play their role in serving the institution in a complimentary fashion. Leadership must endorse, support, and encourage this transformation as well. There should be regular meetings between development and relevant departments as well as cross-functional projects between team members.

If your organization has not considered OKRs (outcomes and key results) it’s a great way to unite team members. Check out this overview explaining The Fundamentals of OKRs. This again applies to nonprofits as well as for-profit companies.


2. Transparency

Transparency is required to solidify inclusion because it builds trust. No one wants to be included in something they can’t rely on!

Transparency is essential to cultivating a culture of philanthropy because people want to know their capital is being used as they think it is, that it’s being used responsibly, and the direct impact they’re having.

In The Importance of Transparency, The Nonprofit Times explains that “there is an increasingly savvy and information-hungry public. It means that a mere lack of transparency can now cause suspicion or even damage to an organization’s image.”

This is certainly true from a donor’s perspective, but it’s also true from an organizational perspective for faculty, staff, and stakeholders.

“By opening up internal operations, successes and failures to the public and to employees, we demonstrate transparency as a company, allowing them to trust us, to recommend us, to tell us when we err, and to choose us again.”

Transparency is also directly tied to authenticity. In today’s world of mass marketing exhaustion, it’s authenticity that breaks through the barriers people have established to avoid the next mass CRM email, direct mailer, or scripted phone call. Authenticity is the Trojan Horse of fundraising because it resonates with individuals at a human level.

Here is another great resource on transparency for anyone who wants to dive deeper.


3. Empowerment

Empowerment is the act of giving people greater authority and autonomy. Essentially, it’s giving people a voice.

Empowerment is fueled by inclusion and transparency: no one can truly feel empowered without feeling valued and informed. It starts with giving people responsibility as part of the whole by providing the knowledge and tools to participate.

You may have heard the expression “many hands make for light work.” By positioning people within your community to authentically share their stories you’re enrolling an army of evangelists to spread the word to people you would never otherwise reach. It shifts the responsibility of the development office from creating stories for your community to curating those stories.

Empowerment causes what has been a centralized responsibility to shift to a decentralized model, which emulates that actual peer network of any institution:

The more empowerment you facilitate, the stronger your community becomes over time. A study published by the American Journal of Psychological ResearchPower and Empowerment in a Nonprofit Organization, concludes that empowerment has a tremendous impact not only on an individual but on the organization as a whole.

“It’s clear that some of the measures that pull for empowerment have an impact on a better sense of self and that perceived control over one’s work environment can also lead to greater mental health. Yet the results would seem to underscore the importance of power and empowerment in terms of the development of the health of the organization.”

Organizations that empower their stakeholders improve the confidence and mental health of individuals, the overall health of the organization, distribute the work of fundraising, promote authentic storytelling, and reduce the demand on development offices as the only source of funding for small groups.


4. Collaboration

Collaboration can have many meanings. By definition, collaboration means working together but you can also use this word to mean supporting one another.

When groups effectively collaborate, individuals are actively building social capital and bonds, inspiring results that surpass those achieved in a silo. Cross-functional collaboration is most effective because you converge different personalities with different areas of expertise creating diverse approaches to problem-solving.

Administrative and staff collaboration should be focused on three main areas:

  1. Donors – How can you collaborate to provide the best donor experience imaginable?
  2. Efficiency – How can you collaborate to reduce the level of effort to get the same or better results?
  3. Innovation – How can you collaborate to pull the best and brightest ideas together and turn them into reality?

With an interdisciplinary team, you’re able to explore a wider spectrum of tactics and solutions. It also breaks down the walls that have often separated departments. It informs individuals of what others are working on and adds variety to what can be monotonous and routine work, also known as boring work!

In his blog Five Ways to Get Extraordinary Results from Collaboration, Harbrinder Kang explains five actions you can take to foster inter-departmental bonds within an organization:

  1. Build relationships and networks that lead to trust
  2. Turn human interactions into results
  3. Evolve the culture for productive collaboration
  4. Balance decision-making and consensus building
  5. Leverage patterns of collaboration

Staff, faculty, and other stakeholders should also be encouraged to become philanthropists in the spirit of collaboration.

It’s not about the dollars. It’s about the fundamental question why should someone give to an organization stakeholders aren’t willing to support? I’ve heard the line “working here is my gift to the organization.” This implies it’s about money when participation is just as valuable.

Viewing collaboration as a transaction allows you to present a range of opportunities rather than simply asking for dollars. Donors need to understand the different essential resources they can provide to make a story a reality.

Remember: participation relies on a story being told well enough, the outreach being authentic, and the demonstration of impact significant. If all of these elements are in place, donors will gladly collaborate to help make it happen!


5. Celebration

Celebration represents the authentic human expression of appreciation. This is the most important of the five pillars, and it’s the fun part, too!

Everything from a storyteller demonstrating empowerment, to a community member showing generosity, to a brilliant idea produced by a cross-functional team is a reason to celebrate.

Celebrations can take the form of large events or simple social media posts, but the most effective ones put people in front of their peers and specifically highlight their actions. By widely acknowledging the behavior of an individual or group and demonstrating the impact of their contribution, you create a higher likelihood that others will seek to emulate the experience.

Celebrations must be authentic, impactful, and delivered in a meaningful and personal way. Here are some examples:

  • Acknowledge in an internal memo, campus newspaper, social media post, or mass email empowered storytellers in your organization and their impact collaborating with the community.
  • Host a “Fundies” award ceremony where you award things like the most funded project, first project to receive support from 100 donors, largest team collaboration, most creative project, donor who supported the largest quantity of campaigns, etc. Creativity is your only limit!
  • Take out an ad in a local newspaper or leverage digital advertising purely to acknowledge donors big and small for their contributions.
  • Have a pizza party for all storytellers using peer-to-peer fundraising in a given month.
  • Create a month of donor recognition and publicly thank 10 donors each day.

Celebrate in any way that emphasizes the things that are meaningful to your community. Celebration reminds us that we’re human and helps us appreciate one another for the important roles we each play.


If you have a desire to build an engaged culture of philanthropy, understand it will take work and you can’t do it alone.

Remember: it’s not an end goal, but a process that needs to be tweaked as you go. If you’ve not seen this article by Jennifer Harris on Holistic Fundraising, I encourage you to check it out as it supports many of the concepts I’m proposing here.

It’s also important to consider the technology you use in this effort: technology that encourages each of the five pillars will help you strengthen your culture more quickly. You will also need your leadership to be part of this transformation, if not to catalyze it, if you hope to accomplish meaningful change.

I’m reminded of a mantra one of our clients taught me when she was making the leap of faith to convert her institution’s culture. She said, “McCabe, we just printed this phrase out on paper and put it all over our office: This is easy, and we can do it! And every time it gets hard, I say it over and over again to remind me to have confidence in our decision.”

In my own life, I find myself life saying these words now and the best part is… it really works!

Katie Haystead

Katie Haystead

Senior Vice President, Partnerships

With over a decade of experience working with K12 schools and higher education institutions’ fundraising efforts, Katie Haystead now oversees the partnerships team at Community Funded. Her passion for partner success and satisfaction aligns with Community Funded’s priorities and Katie’s unique background is well suited to manage the day to day operations of our partnerships team as well as new market acquisition.

Prior to joining the team at Community Funded, Katie served many roles within the Fundraising Division at Ruffalo Noel Levitz. Her experience ranges from working onsite and remotely with clients executing phonathon programs, developing annual giving strategies, onsite consultations and also developing multichannel strategies allowing for strong synergy between annual giving channels and creating strong major and planned gift pipelines.

Katie is based in Metro Detroit and is a graduate of Central Michigan University, where she worked for the phonathon for 3 years while working towards her History Major.

Kim Jennings

Kim Jennings

Senior Generosity Strategist, Generis

Kim Jennings, CFRE is a skilled fundraising leader who believes in the power of Christian education to raise up thoughtful, strong, committed leaders who can make our world a better place for all.

Kim Jennings

Todd Turner

Director of Digital Strategies, Generis

In addition to his 11 years overseeing Chuck Swindoll’s Insight Living Ministries communications department, Todd Turner has worked as a digital strategist for faith based organizations across the globe..

Kim Jennings

Jennifer Perrow

Senior Generosity Strategist, Generis

Jennifer is a skilled fundraising and communications professional who helps ministries articulate vision, communicate mission, and raise abundant funds to advance Kingdom priorities.