Developing a Culture of Philanthropy to Support Your Mission

Culture-of-Philanthropy"The raising of extraordinarily large sums of money, given voluntarily and freely by millions of our fellow Americans, is a unique American tradition... Philanthropy, charity, giving voluntarily and it what you like, but it is truly a jewel of an American tradition."

- President John F. Kennedy


President Kennedy’s words ring true even today. According to the Giving USA Annual Report on Philanthropy, in 2013 alone, Americans contributed $335 billion to charity, with more than 72% coming from individuals. The areas receiving the greatest proportion of gifts were for religion (31%), education (16%), human services (12%), gifts to foundations (11%), and health (10%).


Organizations should recognize and embrace the important role that philanthropy plays in our society. We should not be ashamed of seeking charitable contributions to support our work. By working together and combining our resources, we can accomplish much more.

And yet, how often have we heard people say—“I’ll do anything you want, but just don’t make me ask for money,” or “Isn’t the fact that I’m serving on the board enough?” or “I didn’t become a nurse to spend my time fundraising.”


Indeed, few of us grew up dreaming about a life dedicated to raising money for organizations. It’s something many of us dread doing and avoid at all costs. Believe it or not, fundraising can actually be fun and exciting once you understand that it is not about asking for money but instead about developing lasting relationships.


Those of us who work in development are really in the business of matchmaking: our organization has a vision of the world we are trying to create, and we need to go out and find others who share the same vision. When you find people who have as much passion for your mission as you do, they are eager to join you in partnership to get the work done.

However, just because you’ve found a few willing partners, doesn’t mean that they’ll write you a check on the spot. It’s just like matchmaking—you need to be introduced, get to know one another, confirm that you share the same values, and build up a level of trust. Only after this period of “courtship,” during which your relationship develops, is someone ready to commit to your organization by making a donation.

As thrilling as it is to receive a donation from a new donor, your contact with the donor doesn’t end there.

  • After that “first date,” do you call to say thanks or do you leave them hanging, wondering if you even got their check?
  • Do you tell them about the impact of their gift?
  • Are you keeping in touch with them besides the times you actually ask them for money?
  • What are you doing to keep that relationship going strong?

As you can see, asking for a donation is but one small part of the many interactions you will have with your prospects and donors. The majority of your time is actually spent either before or after “the ask.”

If done well, fundraising results in a long-term relationship between you and your donors—a relationship that develops over time—enables deeper engagement, and ultimately results in more support for your mission.


So how can you get everyone on your team to understand the value of philanthropy? It requires you to nurture a culture of philanthropy that permeates your entire organization. Starting at the top, with your CEO and board of directors, to the volunteers and program staff, to the receptionist who greets visitors—every member of your community must understand that philanthropy is critical to your mission, that each person has a role to play in fundraising, and that donors are valued for more than just money.Building-culture-philanthropy

How can you develop a strong culture of philanthropy in your organization?

Start by investing in the necessary infrastructure to support fund development. Make sure that board, staff, and volunteers can articulate clearly why others should join you in your cause. Train members of your team in what it means to develop relationships with donors and how it is incorporated into their daily work, even if they are not frontline development staff. Seek to engage your donors in your work. Appreciate them for their partnership in helping your organization achieve its mission.


Pitfall 1: Asking for a donation the first time you talk to someone. Remember that cold calls usually don’t work. Just because someone has the capacity to make gift, doesn’t mean that they’ll simply hand it over to you when you ask. It’s rare for people to give money to a cause or organization they’re hearing about for the first time. They need to know you first and trust that you will make good use of their investment.

Pitfall 2: Assuming because someone has given to another organization with a similar mission that he or she will want to give to your organization too. No organization is entitled to receive a donation and no donor is required to give to you, even if you do similar work to other organizations you know they support. Scouring other organizations’ donor rolls may give you a clue about a particular donor’s interests and giving capacity. However, at this point, they’re not prospects yet, just “suspects.” Do a little more research to see if they would be interested in supporting you before you add them to your prospect list.

Pitfall 3: Talking to supporters only when you need the money. Organizations that make this mistake view fundraising as transactional, rather than relational. This may result in donors feeling used or undervalued. Careful planning that includes intentional stewardship will help reassure your current donors that you appreciate their support and recognize the critical role they play in your work. It’s just like calling your mother or best friend when you have some good news—don’t forget to share your organization’s successes with your supporters since they helped make it possible.

Pitfall 4: Failing to send a prompt and meaningful acknowledgment. You may be busy keeping up with your work, but if you don’t make the time to thank those who helped make your work possible, you will kill your chances of being able to rely on them for future gifts. When your organization fails to acknowledge a gift, it risks leaving the donor wondering what kind of an organization you are if you can’t handle a simple “thank you” note. So be sure to send that thank you note within one week of receiving the gift. Better yet, follow it up with a phone call from a board member. One study shows that when supporters have been thanked by board members with a phone call in addition to a letter, it has boosted repeat giving by almost 10%.

Pitfall 5:  Focusing on finding new donors rather than keeping the ones you already have. Donor retention rates in the nonprofit sector are abysmal. Typically, only one of every four first-time donors will give again. But did you know that acquiring a new donor costs 6 to 7 times more than it costs to retain a current donor? Think about the difference that doubling your retention rate could make over the lifetime of your organization!

Pitfall 6: Treating every donor the same. Many organizations receive a gift and send the donor a standard acknowledgment, with no regard to whether this was a first-time donor, a “lapsed donor” (one who gives again, after a period of not giving), a major donor, or a donor with an interest in a specific program or geographical region. A better practice is to first divide your list of donors by donor type and interest and then tailor your communications accordingly. Personalization is the name of the game. The organizations that are best at this ask donors directly about what they are interested in, how often they want to hear from them (weekly, monthly, yearly, and/or on special occasions), and through which medium (e-mail, regular mail,  phone, text, etc). This approach is effective because it enables the organization to adjust to a donor’s expectations and needs.

Pitfall 7: Believing that donations will come pouring in if you get people “with connections to money” to join your board. Actually, what’s more valuable than having a board with connections to money per se is having a board that embraces a culture of philanthropy and is not shy about engaging its networks in the causes it cares about. It may seem like a subtle difference, but take a closer look at those who are great at fundraising, and you’ll see that what makes them great is their understanding of the organization’s mission, their ability to state a clear and compelling case for support, and their drive to recruit others to join the team.


How do you know you’ve been successful at developing a culture of philanthropy? We intuitively know that when someone makes a donation, it means much more than simply writing a check. Donors want to change people’s lives, and your organization needs to reassure them that their contribution is doing exactly that.

So, ask your donors. Are they satisfied with how you’ve stewarded their gifts? Do they believe that, together, you are making progress toward realizing your shared vision? Find out whether your donors are satisfied with their relationship with your organization. This is the best way to know if you have a strong culture of philanthropy.

More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle recognized what makes the business of philanthropy a complicated one. He said:

To give away money is an easy matter and in any man’s power. But to decide to whom to give it, and how much, and when, and for what purpose and how, is neither in every man’s power nor an easy matter.

Bearing this in mind makes the whole concept of developing a culture of philanthropy an easier one to understand and accept. It may require a major shift in the way your board and staff operate or view their role in the organization, but the effort will be well worth it.

Let us know how you are building a culture of philanthropy within your organization.

*this article was featured in Nursing Administration Quarterly.


Nonprofit Trends, Fundraising Tips

Christina Yoon

Christina “Tina” Yoon, Vice President and Director, East Region is a dedicated nonprofit professional who uses her broad experience when advising other nonprofits but brings a fresh perspective to each client engagement. She listens carefully to her clients’ needs and develops customized solutions.