Culture of Philanthropy is All in Your Mind

Much is said about all the conditions beyond you that if changed could improve your organization’s culture of philanthropy. Much less is said about the conditions within you. I believe that conscious awareness precedes a mindset shift, which influences the change in language, which fosters personal and intentional behavioral practices, which precede the kind of results to which you aspire.

Think for a moment about your own situation. How are you using the term? What is the commonly accepted connotation for a culture of philanthropy in your shop/your organization? In my experience, it’s often thought to mean that many/most/all members of our organization have a role to play in philanthropy; some suggest that “front line” staff have a “discovery” and “relationship building” role that they willingly embrace; others point to evidence of being “donor-centered” in their work.

These things are not wrong. Those subscribing to these views are often unaware of the dichotomy between these espoused “best practices” and what lies beneath them that is either feeding complete alignment and authenticity…or contributing to sustained misalignment and disconnection.

At times I find myself in organizations espousing these views and yet I see their programs and practices with these widely-used names:

  • pipelinethe flow of prospects through stages of engagement and giving that signals readiness (worthiness?) for personal attention/cultivation
  • hit lista list of donor prospects
  • moves meetingsa time for staff to discussion how we make “moves” that prepare a prospect for solicitation
  • the askthat crescendo moment when a prospect is invited to make a gift
  • contact-to-close ratioa metric tracking the number of prospect contacts required to secure a gift from a given donor

Even this short list of examples should suffice to illustrate that, unintentionally, the language being used suggests a mindset of a mechanical process where we are acting upon—rather than with—someone we say we value. Whether intentional or not, the emphasis seems clearly on the money rather than on the relationship and the shared imagination that fuels the sense of partnership.

So here’s my question: how can you be surprised by lacking an optimal organizational culture of philanthropy if the language used with your closest professional colleagues conveys a shared mindset of mechanical manipulation and focus on what you can “get” “from” people?

Am I playing word games with you? Who would believe for a moment that a true professional would consciously adopt such a position of mechanical manipulation?! Those having that reaction may want to pause to consider that you may have absorbed common language along the way—with which many of your contemporaries are familiar and using daily—where you have a common vocabulary, a shorthand for what you know you truly mean when using these terms. This language has been co-created and widely socialized in the professional ranks…but oh…be careful! Language is a signal of many unconsciously, deeply socialized, concepts and is directly connected to your mindset about the work—and about your partners in the work.

Your mindset about your work and your partners deserves some attention; some deeper exploration. You may need to challenge some long-held assumptions about your views. You may be conveying through your language the very antithesis to the culture you most want to incubate. If we see ourselves as contributing to the social construction of our own reality, then we ought to be paying careful attention to the intention signaled by our language. Berger and Luckmann note that,

“Society, identity and reality are subjectively crystallized in the process of internalization….[L]anguage constitutes both the most important content and the most important instrument of socialization.”[i]

Changing organizational culture is difficult work, requiring clear intention, and a socialization of new ideas and language supported by experience and immersion over time.

“Yeah, right…who’s got time for that!” OK, but wait. If that’s your objection, are you really saying that you want to see a wholesale shift in your culture toward a wide embrace of the “love of humankind” (aka, philanthropy), but you’d like it done this quarter, with no budget impact, and triggered by having simply pointed out the great benefits all will realize having accomplished the shift?! Get real; it’s not going to happen and years from now you’ll be bemoaning the absence of a conducive culture of philanthropy.

So what can you do?

  1. Check your own level of awareness – if you sense there’s a disconnect, don’t feel guilty and certainly don’t shrink from it. Instead, celebrate this new opening. You’re already ahead of the curve;
  2. Depict the connection of language to results – alone or with your colleagues make a wall chart that does some non-judgmental inventorying of the conventional/familiar approach to fundraising (your current approach??).
    1. What we value
    2. What we track/monitor/report
    3. The language we generally use
  3. Unpack each to illuminate what they demonstrate – for example, for the things you noted about what we value, ask yourselves what that demonstrates about your mindset and the assumptions you’re making. Be honest and judgment free. You’re not trying to “catch” somebody in rogue behavior; you’re trying to create a learning moment when group awareness is heightened. Do this for all three levels noted above. Once identifying the underlying mindset and assumptions, identify the behavioral patterns that are produced from those mindsets and assumptions. Then describe the results you witness from those behavioral patterns.
  4. Rinse and repeat…through a new lens – now do the same inventory. This time explore the three levels and their applications through the lens of your deepest authenticity, your most appreciative, and most highly relational way of being—as if you were completing the chart with your best donors and prospects in the room with you.
  5. Note the differences between the two charts – one is not implicitly “better” than the other. Each of us has to start wherever we are. Without making judgments, see what you (and your colleagues) discern from these two charts. The new lens can help you begin to shift the language you use daily. It may affect what you decide to track and monitor—like all those qualifiable, relational dimensions that are expressions of shared values. Consider how to introduce this new thinking to your larger team. Have it shape your new staff orientations/onboarding. How will you introduce it to your board in an experiential way that won’t shame or blame but also will help them consider how they may have inadvertently contributed to maintaining the barriers to the culture you most want to see. This is a learning moment.
  6. Translate and share your learnings – as a result of this awareness opening exercise, how might you translate this learning to organizational members for whom philanthropy is just a peculiar word they know little about yet generally want to be as supportive of your efforts as they can? Who are your early adopters and how might they help you spot the best alignment that may already exist in the organization—high point moments of implicit understanding and behavior that you can track, fan, and amplify? This should take you well beyond the feature story on the web page or in the next newsletter.

If you desire a better culture of philanthropy than the one you’re experiencing today, look within yourself first. The keys to the shift are there. Remember, conscious awareness precedes a mindset shift, which influences the change in language, which fosters personal and intentional behavioral practices, which precede the kind of results to which you aspire.

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[i] Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge, New York: Anchor Books, p. 133.

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