Strengthening Your Culture of Philanthropy

There’s been lots of online talk and conference chatter about establishing or deepening your institution’s culture of philanthropy. When I talk to colleagues about how they’re approaching their own culture of philanthropy, I see a pattern that I believe is misaligned.

So here’s my perspective and a suggestion for one way of engaging organizational leaders in a deeper and more meaningful conversation about your culture of philanthropy.

Your institution’s culture of philanthropy (like your larger corporate culture) is a widely shared mindset, not a manifesto. It should not be thought of as a “best practice” nor is it transportable from some other institution to your own. It is not something that you can easily develop metrics around so that you can import it into your dashboard report.

Rather, think about your institution’s culture of philanthropy as a product of your leaders’ attention and intention. The strength of your culture reflects the internal clarity and widely shared acceptance of your institution’s identity, purpose, and intended impact.

A strong culture of philanthropy grows from the generative role of your board, which then influences the focus of senior staff leaders. Boards should maintain this generative role with discipline because philanthropy’s true power resides within this generative space.

Like corporate culture and human systems, your culture of philanthropy naturally evolves toward the questions being asked by leaders most often. If the questions most frequently address operational efficiency and tactical implementation, the institution’s focus will be drawn to see philanthropy as providing the “gap fillers” and “stuff” to enable the institutional leaders to meet objectives. Not bad; just not very compelling for those who invite gift investments and for those with charitable intent to seek to make an impact through their giving.

However, if the questions leaders routinely ask are more about trying to better understand the institution’s identity and intended impact on society, leader perspectives are bound to be more far-reaching and, therefore, the role for philanthropy is bigger, broader, and often more compelling. In this way, the institution presents itself to possible donors as an integral part of the fabric of society, rather than the unconscious default position of presenting the institution as an end in itself, with “needs” that must be met if it is to accomplish mission objectives.

Symbols, Symptoms, and Shadow Beliefs
In recent years there has been more attention placed on understanding organizational cultures of philanthropy, often resulting in development professionals outlining for executives what they (the executives) must do differently to support a more robust culture of philanthropy. That’s a good start, but you’ll have to go much deeper in the routine teaching, coaching, orienting, and rewarding of front line staff (including physicians, faculty, counselors, etc. ).

You’ll need to repeatedly ask staff (and teach staff) to: 1) live the institution’s values in demonstrable ways. A high quality culture of philanthropy can only take hold in an existing context of high quality delivery of mission results. 2) be aware of the philanthropy program. Your institution’s service delivery staff come in contact with more donors/prospective donors more often than the development staff. Therefore, they need to be attuned to the fact that your organization has a department or allied foundation whose primary purpose is to invite philanthropic support. An unaware staff makes no referrals to the development staff. 3) Ask staff who encounter your stakeholders to listen for cues of philanthropic inclination and to notify someone in the philanthropy program. These cues could come in the form of expressions of gratitude, visible evidence of wealth, and/or an expressed desire to act. Notifying philanthropy staff of these observations captures opportunities that would otherwise be lost.

In my work with many organizations in the sector, I pay close attention to the language of institutional leaders. I listen for evidence of whether the language suggests a compartmentalized (or siloed) view or one that’s integrated. I’m referring to whether leaders routinely think and talk about the organization as inextricably part of the larger fabric of society or whether their institution-speak focuses primarily on their own organization. Additionally, I listen for whether leaders refer to their organization as a big business with an often embattled revenue stream or whether they see the institution as an organization (big or small) operating as a public trust, with leaders as the stewards of that collective trust. As one might imagine, philanthropy grows best in the latter.

I listen for language symbols to tell me if leaders are most focused on implementation methods or at least equally focused on organizational impact. I also listen to the nature of the conversations leaders and boards are having. Are their horizons of attention short or long? My experience leads me to surmise that the shorter the horizon of leadership attention, the weaker the culture of philanthropy. Even the best organizations with crisis relief and intervention missions (naturally short-term focus) have successfully placed leadership attention on much longer horizons to avoid having the philanthropy program become shallow, reactive, and simply “activity driven.”

I also listen for the type and quality (or depth) of questions being asked by leaders and boards. Are they asking why/how/what questions or are they asking who/when/where/which questions? The former questions propel decision making toward the longer term and integrated context; the latter toward the shorter term, institution-centric context.

These may be small symbols, but they are telling when trying to understand something as ethereal as institutional culture of philanthropy.

Leadership Discussion Exercise
Get your leadership team and board(s) together. Distribute to each person a thick rubber band. Ask each person to put their hands through the rubber band, with one hand on top of the other, wrapped by the band. Explain that the bottom hand symbolizes the daily work and operational tactics of the organization. The top hand symbolizes the highest and best role of your organization, the greatest possible impact your organization could have on society. Ask the group to now slowly separate their hands, one hand pulling down, one pulling up. Ask the group what they notice. They’ll say things like “pressure” or “tension,” etc. And, of course, they’re right. Whenever some elements of the organization try to take a longer term view, it often creates friction with those forces in the organization seeking status quo and “sticking to our knitting.” By itself, tension is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s needed for traction. What the group should consider is what happens when the bottom hand pulls harder? The top hand (visionary impact) gets pulled down. Alternatively, when the top hand pulls up, the bottom hand (daily business of the business operation) gets pulled toward the vision.

Your culture of philanthropy resides within the tension of these two hands. What’s important is to understand the dominant “pull” at work in your organization–and to intervene if the pull is downward.

What Question Would You Ask?
So while you’ve still got your leadership group assembled, continue the learning exercise that may help them rebalance their attention and intention in ways that could better facilitate a deepening culture of philanthropy. Distribute to each participant a 3 x 5 notecard. Ask everyone to quietly and individually answer one question on the lined/ruled side of the card. Here’s the question: What is the most important question we should be asking ourselves right now to propel our evolution of a strong culture of philanthropy? Give them a minute or two to write their response. Now ask them to turn their cards over and write their answer to a second question: What assumption are we making about our philathropy effort that should be tested or challenged? Collect the cards and review a few with the whole group in order to merely sample the tone and direction of the two questions. Keep the cards and use them as catalyst questions for an upcoming retreat. Allow plenty of time for the conversation, as you’ll find there is huge opportunity for collective “a-ha’s” and behavioral realignment resulting from participation in this discussion.

Generative Questions to Propel Clarity and Understanding of
Your Culture of Philanthropy

I hope you’ll consider the exercise above. Let me know your experience with it. To further prepare you, think about the types of questions YOU think are the most important to be asked of your philanthropy effort.

Here’s a few to get you started.

1. What assumptions or beliefs are we holding that are key to our conversation about philanthropy?
2. What assumptions do we need to test or challenge here in thinking about how our culture of philanthropy is exemplified? What behaviors would we celebrate (or reward) and why?
3. How would we come at this culture question if we held an entirely different belief system than the one we have?
4. What is the one question about our institution that we’ve never asked?
5. What’s missing from our discussion so far? What is it that we’re not seeing? What do we need more clarity about?
6. What possibilities exist that we haven’t thought of yet?
7. If we were raising five times what we do today, what would we be asking ourselves about our culture of philanthropy?
8. What would our institution look like or be like if the culture of philanthropy was “ideal”?
9. What conversation, if begun today, could ripple out (inside and outside our institution) in a way that created new possibilities for our future (of philanthropy)?
10. How can we support each other in taking the next steps in growing our culture of philanthropy at this institution? What unique contributions can we each make (faculty, physicians, staff, president, boards)?


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