Building A Culture of Philanthropy

When advancement leaders claim a desire for a stronger “culture of philanthropy,” what is typically meant is that they want a stronger “culture of giving.”  They want more people to be more generous.  From the Board, to advisory groups, to primary constituency groups, the idea is that more donors and more dollars are the best evidence for an increasingly strong “culture of philanthropy.”  The thinking goes, if the amount of giving and the number of donors are increasing, our culture of philanthropy is growing stronger.

But, giving totals can increase because one or a few donors decides to make unusually large gifts.  Or because someone passed away who decided during their life to include your institution in their will.  And the number of donors can increase because of a matching challenge effort.  Or because someone close and important to your institution’s community passed away and memorial gifts came flooding in.  In these scenarios, it is not likely that a “cultural” change around giving or philanthropy has occurred.

To better gauge the strength of your institution’s culture of philanthropy, I would suggest using a different lens through which to view the issue.  Specifically, ask yourself how regularly good and meaningful questions get asked at your institution.  The honest answer to this question is a fantastic predictor of the strength of your philanthropic culture.

For example, how regularly do you ask good, meaningful questions of your Board members?  Questions about institutional values and strategic direction, for instance.  Or how regularly do you ask good, meaningful questions of your team mates?  Questions about your institution’s strengths and how proposed strategies might affirm those strengths, for instance.  Or how regularly do you ask good, meaningful questions of your donors?  Questions about their interests and how or when they might most appreciate being solicited, for instance.

Institutions experience extraordinary advancement when a growing number of people more deeply share a sense of ownership.  Asking people to think with you, to share their opinions, ideas, perspectives, observations, feedback, and inclinations is the single best way to invite feelings of ownership.  If you want to strengthen your institution’s “culture of philanthropy,” focus your efforts on strengthening your “culture of questioning.”


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