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21st-century fundraising requires nonprofits to shake up their cultures

An exciting conversation is sweeping through the nonprofit world: we acknowledge that we cannot continue to do business as we've always done it and expect greater success. Here's an engaging piece on the relationship between nonprofit culture and fundraising by Cynthia Gibson, author of Beyond Fundraising: What Does it Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?

by Cynthia Gibson

In a growing number of nonprofits around the country, something unusual is happening: Development directors are asking their colleagues across the organization to share responsibility, and take credit, for fundraising. They’re demanding a seat at the table in key organizational planning meetings. They’re breaking down the walls that separate fundraising from the programs and mission-related work of the organization.

Ten years ago, fundraisers who promoted such ideas would have been considered mavericks. But now this approach is gaining steam and could one day become the norm as organizations recognize that fundraising is more effective and sustainable when chief executives, board members, program staff, and everyone else make raising money and attracting other resources part of their day-to-day thinking and responsibility.

One reason for the spread of this thinking is growing concern about the chronic nature of fundraising problems that plague so many nonprofit organizations, with high turnover among development staff being the most obvious symptom.

In "UnderDeveloped," a report commissioned by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, it became clear that these widespread problems could not be solved simply by hiring a new fundraising director every time someone walked out the door in frustration. Instead, the report suggested that nonprofits need to pay more attention to creating what’s now being called a culture of philanthropy.

Interest in moving toward a culture of philanthropy is being driven by larger societal factors affecting nonprofits, especially dramatic changes in how we communicate, work, and socialize. People who have grown up with the Internet — as well as all those others who have become accustomed to its efficiency and transparency — expect a bottom-up approach that allows everyone to participate, and they approach social change with the same expectations. What once were bright lines between donors and activists no longer exist. The myriad ways people get involved with an organization — social media, volunteering, blogs, meetups — means that their relationship may not start with a financial contribution but may lead to one.

These trends are pushing nonprofits to consider new approaches to — and a new mind-set about — fundraising. But while many people may agree that something needs to change, most charity leaders don’t know what it means to put a culture of philanthropy in place, or even to determine whether their organization already has one. That’s why the Haas, Jr. Fund, as part of a followup study to "UnderDeveloped," asked me to talk to nonprofits and fundraising experts to learn more about how a culture of philanthropy works.

In my conversations, four key themes emerged:

Responsibility for raising dollars and other resources must be shared broadly. Fundraising isn’t just one person’s job or the job of one department. Everyone — employees, executive directors, constituents, board members, and volunteers — shares responsibility for raising the resources to fuel the work.

Not everyone needs to solicit funds, but everyone serves as an ambassador for the organization, builds relationships, and can articulate a case for support. That can take the form of networking, holding briefings, working on press events, and fostering relationships with constituencies. Fundraising staff members serve as advocates for and stewards of a philanthropic culture rather than raising funds in isolation.

Attracting donations and carrying out the mission and programs go hand in hand. The organization’s mission, program goals, and operations inform how it attracts donations of all kinds, not just money. Put another way, fundraising is valued as part of the organization’s overall mission, not something separate.

Fundraising can no longer be disconnected from engagement. More and more, people want some kind of involvement with an organization before and after they make a financial contribution.

As one prominent fundraising expert told me, "In a culture of philanthropy, you don’t start by doing a gala or getting a grant. You start by talking with and engaging people. You say, ‘We don’t want you to give money until you’re engaged and you know us. When that happens, we know you’ll be more likely to give us more and do more for the organization than give money.’ "

That’s why some organizations are knocking down barriers between the fundraising, communications, marketing, and programming departments and making them more collaborative. Instead of putting a firewall between lists of donors and volunteers or activists, everyone is now on one list but can be categorized in many ways, depending on how much they give and what kind of involvement they prefer.

Donors should be treated like partners in a nonprofit’s work. This doesn’t mean donors call the shots. Instead, they’re seen as engaged supporters working with the organization to solve problems and drive social change rather than just passive check writers. When donors feel included in the work to achieve the kinds of impact they want to bring about in the world around them, they are more likely to give again and again.

That requires organizations to focus more on building strong relationships with donors than in just recruiting as many new donors as possible. Relationships, not money, matter most — a shift in thinking away from the prevailing obsession with transactions and revenue goals that is more in keeping with the original definition of philanthropy: a love of humankind and a voluntary joining of resources and action for the public good.

These components of a culture of philanthropy may not sound revolutionary or controversial; indeed, some have been calling for these kinds of changes for years. But taken as a whole, they represent a huge shift in how people think about raising money for nonprofits.

As Linda Wood of the Haas, Jr. Fund notes, "Fundraising needs a reboot. Simply adopting new tools and techniques will not be enough to help organizations break out of chronic fundraising challenges. This is about changing the operating system for fundraising, not just downloading a new app."

While cultivating a culture of philanthropy may not solve every financial problem a nonprofit faces, it pushes us to challenge the assumptions behind traditional fundraising approaches that too often focus on quick fixes.

Is a culture of philanthropy at least part of the answer? Maybe. At a time when nonprofits face more competition for tighter-than-ever dollars, they can’t afford not to find out.

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