The Number One Thing You’re Not Talking About at Your Staff Retreat and Why You Should Be.

If you’re reading this article, we probably don’t need to tell you that fundraising is the fuel of your nonprofit — it’s what keeps the work going! Yet often, fundraising is thought of as its own department, connected to but apart from the rest of the organization, rather than central to its work.

In reality, everyone in your organization has a role to play in fundraising. And that’s a great thing! Every choice your organization makes — about programming, marketing, even how you answer the phones — has an effect on how likely people are to donate. Making everyone, from the staff to the Board of Directors, understand their role in fundraising and helping them articulate a case for giving, can go a long way in getting them excited about philanthropy, and turning them into your best ambassadors. And your next staff retreat is a great time to do it. 

It’s time to start building an internal culture of philanthropy. 

Chances are you’ve heard this term. There’s also a good chance you’ve dismissed it as just another buzzword. A recent report on nonprofits and cultures of philanthropy reported that 52% of respondents said that a culture of philanthropy describes their organization either “not so well” or “not at all.” 

In this post, we’ve outlined some of the key steps that go into building a culture of philanthropy  and ideas for activities to get the conversation going at your next staff retreat (all of which would work equally well for your Board of Directors at their next meeting). 

Defining a Culture of Philanthropy

“Culture of Philanthropy” is one of those terms that’s a bit hard to pin down. Every organization has something different, and that’s okay! Your definition will depend on your organization and its mission, vision and goals. 

That said, it’s good to have a few examples of what a culture of philanthropy is:

  • A culture of philanthropy “refers to your organization’s attitude toward philanthropy and fund development.” (Nonprofit Quarterly)
  • A culture of philanthropy is a “Set of organizational values and practices that support and nurture development within a nonprofit organization.” (from “UnderDeveloped”, a white paper from CompassPoint and the Evelyn and Walter Haas  Jr. Foundation)
  • A culture of philanthropy is when you have “a community of people committed to telling and supporting relevant stories to enhance each other’s wellbeing.” (Community Funded
  • It’s about “injecting the underlying motivations of giving into everything we do.” (e-Jewish Philanthropy)

These definitions, while linked, all say something a little different. More on this later. For now, if this is an idea you’ve never heard of or considered in relation to your nonprofit, here’s an activity that can help you and your staff get started.

Activity: Think, Pair, Share: Ask people to take a few minutes to jot down some thoughts about what a culture of philanthropy would look like for your organization.  Then have them pair off to share their thoughts and ideas, preferably with someone from a different department or whom they don’t work with on a regular basis. Next, either have each pair join up with another pair or bring the entire group together to continue the discussion. Combine ideas that help define what your nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy looks like or should look like. Do you have this already? Is this something you need to work on? What does this concept mean to a marketing person? A fundraising officer? The admin assistant? How do non-fundraising people consider motivations for giving  in their work ? All of these viewpoints will be important for creating your group’s culture. 

Connecting Philanthropy to your Mission

If your organization is like most, your mission, vision, and goals are central guides for your work, but have you thought about them in the context of a culture of philanthropy? By making your mission central to your fundraising narratives, you can draw a stronger connection between your nonprofit and the notion of philanthropy and by extension, the act of fundraising.  

Your mission and vision paint a picture of the change in the world that you seek to actualize. They embody a common point of view and set of values. Explicitly draw the connection between these shared concepts and the way your organization approaches and talks about philanthropy. 

For example, if your organization values wide participation and inclusion, your concept of philanthropy may prioritize attracting and maintaining a broad base of donor support, even if these represent smaller dollars.

Aligning the mission with a notion of philanthropy carries the staff’s and Board’s motivation for the work over to fundraising and makes the act of asking and giving more natural. It also means that even an unsuccessful request reinforces your organization’s goals. 

Communications – It’s Not Only With Outsiders!

External Communications

Now that your culture of philanthropy is clear and embraced by the staff and board at your organization, it’s time to think about how it affects your external communications.  

The first thing that everyone in your organization needs to understand is that they are ALL part of the fundraising team. This doesn’t mean that they all need to go out and ask for money , but it does mean that they are all ambassadors for the organization and its mission and need to be able to clearly articulate the organization’s impact and value.  

Fundraising is, at its core, about building relationships between people. Every single time someone on the staff of your organization mentions where they work, they are creating an impression in a potential donor’s mind. When they’re out in the community providing programming, they’re ambassadors for your mission. When someone calls your office, the person who answers the phone makes an indelible first impression.  Everyone needs to be able to “own” your organization’s mission, vision, and goals in a way that is meaningful to them, so that they can always speak with confidence and clarity about what you do and why it’s important. When people meet your knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff, they’ll be left with a positive impression, making them far more inclined to give.

Creating a culture of philanthropy means giving your colleagues the tools they need to present information about your organization in an interesting and informative way. 

Activity: Have the staff role play talking about your organization’s mission, vision, and goals. Come up with different scenarios: meeting someone new at a party, for instance, or answering the phone at reception and talking to a potential donor who wants to know more about what you do. 

Internal Communications 

Communications aren’t just about communicating your message to people outside of your organization. There are also internal communications to consider as you build your culture of philanthropy. 

People love stories, and stories are absolutely vital for creating a strong culture of philanthropy. Fundraisers often share stories with donors because stories make it easier for others to see themselves or someone they know in your work. Stories make things personal. Your staff can use stories to bring what you do to life for others. 

Encourage staff to share stories about their work and the impact they have on the community. One way to help folks do this is to open your staff meetings by giving everyone a chance to share an interesting story or anecdote about something mission-related they’ve experienced recently in their work. Make sure you share these stories with all staff members, particularly the fundraising team, so that they can also share them in their day-to-day lives! 

Activity: Go around the table and have everyone share one story of something they’ve seen in the course of their work. Make sure someone is taking notes. Afterward write up the stories and post them somewhere central in your office for everyone to see and read. Change these up regularly so that everyone in your office and people coming in can see the change you’re making. You can also save these anecdotes in a “stories bank” for future use in grant applications, annual reports, and marketing materials.

Integrating Teams

No matter the size of your organization, you have a team to help you in your fundraising. Even if you’re a fundraising department of one (as is often the case in smaller organizations), there are people who can and should be enlisted for support.

The fundraising team isn’t an entity unto itself. Neither is the board, marketing, communications or any other team. An organization with a solid culture of philanthropy is one where everyone knows and appreciates what the other teams are doing and supports each other in their work. Hold interdepartmental meetings and get-togethers where each group talks about what they’re doing. Have fundraising team members shadow marketing staff and vice versa or pitch in on each other’s projects. Being knowledgeable about other people’s work will give your staff an appreciation of all the work that makes your organization successful, and create connections that weren’t there before. 

Helping your staff connect to one another on a personal level will breed positivity about the organization and the work you do. 

Activity: At a staff retreat, have your teams swap roles for an hour or two. Have your fundraising team plan a marketing campaign. Have communications dream up a fundraising plan. Then have each group present their ideas and the actual team responsible for that job comment provide comments. This will help everyone appreciate all the work that goes into making your organization a success. 

Celebrate Success!

We all like to be told when we’ve done a good job. Whether you’re the fundraiser  who’s brought in a sizeable donation, the person who gave that donation, or the receptionist who does their job with a smile day in and day out, it’s nice to be recognized. So celebrate those successes! 

People emulate behaviors they see being celebrated. If you’re in a position to do so, find a way to ensure that not only your donors but also your staff and board members are being recognized for their hard work. Your marketing team raised the number of views on the website by ten percent with their new campaign? Order in a pizza lunch one day. You sold out your gala event? Suggest a toast at your next staff meeting. You don’t even need to spend money. A word or two and a round of applause or a thoughtful organization-wide email will mean the world to the person being recognized. 

There are numerous ways to celebrate success. Get creative! 

Activity: One of the most important ways we recognize donors who give to our nonprofits is to write thank you notes. To further get all staff on board with your organization’s culture of philanthropy, have them all write thank you notes to some of your donors. Talk about how to write a great thank you note (provide examples!). Be sure to share stories about those donors and the impact their donations have had on your work.

Last Thoughts

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker, management guru

As the quote by Peter Drucker suggests, you can have the best strategy in the world, but if you don’t build a culture in which that strategy can flourish, it’s going to be dead in the water. If your own colleagues don’t think there’s a culture of philanthropy at your nonprofit, why would your current and potential donors think so? And why would they ever give more or be a first-time donor? By building a culture of philanthropy in your organization, you will get deeper and more meaningful commitment from your staff, and foster an understanding that fundraising is a key part of programming, and everyone’s responsibility.