3 Ways to Drive a Culture of Philanthropy Instead of a Culture of Charity

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by Rob Webb

There is a lot of talk in our industry about developing a culture of philanthropy. It’s the hot buzzword these days at strategic planning sessions and board retreats. As nonprofit consultants, we are always preaching how important this phrase is to our clients. But what does developing a culture of philanthropy really mean in the day-to-day life of a nonprofit professional?

To answer this question, I first went to the dictionary which describes philanthropy as “the practice of giving money and time to help make life better for other people”. OK, fair enough, but this is also the definition of charity. So, now we need to further clarify the distinctions between a “culture of philanthropy” versus a “culture of charity.”

To unpack this more, I went to social media and asked my followers: “What is the difference between a ‘culture of philanthropy’ and a ‘culture of charity’? Here are a few of the responses:

Consultant — and my training partner — Linda Lysakowski, ACFRE, said:

“A culture of philanthropy means it is part of everything the organization does. It values its donors and its professional fundraising staff. It supports the staff and invests in development just as it invests in its programs. No more tin cup mentality.”

My friend Marji Knowles Tibbott, who is a generous philanthropist and nonprofit board member here on Maui put it this way:

“I think there is a lot of overlap and sometimes they mean the same thing. But, for me, charitable giving is when we respond to an immediate need or a direct ask. Our philanthropy is the act of seeking out organizations that align with our core values and making long-term commitments to support them. Someone once said to me, ‘Charity is donating to a hospital; philanthropy is building a library.'”

Here is what my Facebook friend and former Make-A Wish Foundation staff member Spring Valazquez had to say:

“I was trying to describe the difference to an intern once and this is what I came up with. I told her if I share my lunch with you today because you’re hungry, that’s charity. … But If I commit to sharing my lunch with you every day for the next month, and if I can help show you how you can share that lunch with another person because they’re hungry, that’s philanthropy.”

My takeaway from this informal, totally unscientific social media survey is this: When you reduce fundraising to a transaction, you are creating a culture of charity. When I think of charity, I think of one-time giving appeals like a disaster. I want to help but I have no intention of developing a relationship with the organization I am giving to. When I think of philanthropy, I think of a nonprofit that puts people first and truly cares about their best interests. That philosophy permeates in everything they do and includes staff, board members, donors, volunteers and the people they serve.

I love the “No more tip cup mentality.” comment. That really hits the nail on the head. With that said, here are three bad habits that I believe many nonprofits must break if they want to develop a culture of philanthropy:

  1. Don’t set a minimum giving level for your board of directors. Minimums become maximums. I can’t tell you how many board members I have talked to that give the minimum because that is what’s expected. Some of them have the capacity to give 100 times what they gave but nobody asked them to give more.
  2. Eliminate the three Gs from your vocabulary. If you have been in this industry for a while, you have no doubt heard the phrase that board members should give, get or go (or some variation of that horrible message). Talk about reducing your nonprofit fundraising efforts to a menial transaction. Can we all please never say those words again?
  3. You should not view fundraising as drudgery. If that’s you, you must either change your paradigm or change your profession. It’s that simple. I have been in board meetings where the executive director said, “It’s that time of year again. You all need to write a check like you did last year.” This reduces your fundraising efforts down even further to a culture or obligation.

I don’t know about you, but I feel dirty when I’m involved with a nonprofit that does not practice a culture of philanthropy. Our industry deserves better and so does your nonprofit organization.

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