Building a Culture of Philanthropy

It was mid-summer, so my colleague Chuck Trione and I thought that the crowd would be small.  Instead, more than 80 people showed up for our presentation on “How to Create a Culture of Philanthropy.”  Clearly, the subject matter mattered. It is, as we stated in our introduction, one of those phrases that seems to be on everyone’s lips and yet coming up with a definition for what it is—and why it matters—isn’t quite so easy.  Indeed, as we prepared for this session, Chuck and I found that we didn’t always agree.

So, what is a culture of philanthropy and why should you care if your organization has one?

Because we’ve both been at this for a long time, Chuck and I knew that the answers did not really reside in us. Instead, we had the group do the work.  First we gave them some scenarios that described some situations we’ve both seen first hand.  So, judging from the responses as people read them, had almost everyone else in the room.

In an organization with a culture of philanthropy, we all agreed, everyone involved—staff, clients, volunteers—feels an ownership and knows the value of being able to say “Join with me in supporting this organization”  That means that there is an expectation that everyone gives of his or her time, talent or money to help support the mission of the organization.

Along with giving, a second trait that organizations with cultures of philanthropy share is that everyone in the organization is an ambassador—able to speak about what the organization does, what it accomplishes and what it needs.  In other words, everyone is a fundraiser in some way, shape or form.

Just as everyone is part of the development team, the Board of an organization with a well-developed culture of philanthropy understands the importance of a well-resourced development staff and doesn’t second-guess that staff on how fundraising is best accomplished.  Rather, they would together to raise the necessary funds.

The group agreed that leadership is an important piece of having a culture of philanthropy.  “It comes from the top,” was a comment we heard several times.   But it also exists at the bottom.  Everyone at such an organization understands that they are part of the process—fundraising is not someone else’s job.  It is the responsibility of all.

In short, we found that an organization with a culture of philanthropy is one where:

  1. Fundraising sits at the center of the organization:  Everyone must be committed to getting and giving charitable gifts.
  2. Everyone at the organization can talk about why and what the organization needs to fulfill its mission—and how the potential donor can join with the organization to make that happen.
  3. Everyone—regardless of role—sees him or herself as an organizational ambassador—helping to identify new prospects and partners
  4. The Board understands its fiduciary responsibilities and that it is their role not just to give and get, but also to ensure that the organization has a well-resourced development function and that the ED is provided the time to be involved with fundraising.

How does your organization fare?

Janet Levine works with nonprofits and educational organizations helping them to build a culture of philanthropy and increase their fundraising capacity.  Learn more at