Creating a Culture of Philanthropy Is a Team Effort
By David Sharken

David Sharken
By David Sharken
One of the most important actions a nonprofit can take to help ensure its future financial well-being is to develop a culture of philanthropy in which the entire organization is focused on developing and engaging committed donors.

Nonprofits frequently ask, “Why should we take the time to provide orientation and training to all of our staff and board toward a culture of philanthropy? Don’t we really just need our key leadership to be trained in donor relations?”

The answer is simple: Everyone must be rowing in the same direction! Creating and maintaining a culture of philanthropy is an all-encompassing team effort.

First, let's consider a fuller definition of the term and then examine a case study that illustrates the potential impact of training your organization to foster such a culture. At its core, building an organizational culture of philanthropy emerges from the following key elements:
  1. Board members embrace both strategic development and hands-on fundraising

  2. Executive leaders provide support and leadership to create and maintain diversified revenue streams

  3. The staff (management, programming, administrative, and frontline personnel) understand their unique and important roles in bringing the messages of giving and philanthropy into their daily jobs

  4. Major donors become key partners in the mission of the organization

  5. All stakeholders share an intentional engagement toward a shared future vision
Now consider the following real-life example in which one staff person connecting with one community member helped transform the organization.

Not long ago, an environmental education center launched its first-ever capital campaign for a new, larger building to house their programs, get their staff out of a cold office trailer, create a year-round community center, and establish a small endowment fund. Its annual operating budget was about $600,000 and it wanted to raise $6 million ”“ a feat never considered achievable in its history.

To lay the groundwork for the early stages of their campaign, leadership convened a half-day session to orient all staff and board members on how to build a culture of philanthropy, which addressed many of the key elements described above.

Several months later, one of the staff nature educators was leading a bird watching hike. As the group was walking, she recalled the main message about getting to know the organization’s stakeholders. After striking up a conversation with one of the bird watchers, she learned that he was a highly experienced architect and building developer. She told him about the organization's strategic vision of creating a new facility. As a brand new attendee, the bird watcher had no idea that the environmental center was considering such a project.

Fast-forward a few months. That bird watcher donated close to $10,000 worth of intensive, program-centric building design. He also has enthusiastically worked with the staff to redesign the facility with programming, client experience, and staff needs in mind. In addition, he and his wife feel tremendously engaged with the organization and are poised to make a five-figure campaign contribution.

This happened because the nature center took active steps to develop a culture of philanthropy, which, at its core, is about connecting with individuals on common values and offering an engagement opportunity in a shared vision for the community. In the example cited here, a simple inquiry from the staffer led to a partnership that helped transform the organization and the individuals involved.

Some nonprofits may ask why they should train all their people on creating a culture of philanthropy. The better question is, why would an organization not do this?

David Sharken, principal of Rainmaker Consulting, consults with nonprofits on organizational development, board development, fundraising strategy, and strategic planning. Email him at or call 413-835-1930.
May 2019