The “Culture of Ought”

Recently I was presenting on the process of asking for a major gift before a diversified group of development professionals.  The folks in the room that day spanned all levels of development leaders, gift officers, and support team members and ranged in experience from a few weeks on the job to seasoned pros.

During a specific section of the presentation a woman stood and asked,

“I try to be strategic in my cultivation and solicitation planning for individual major donors.  But some of the leaders in my organization derail that process by saying, “well, they are on our Board, they ought to be giving.”  I call it the “culture of ought.”  How would you suggest I change this culture at our organization?”

Before I provided a response, another person chimed in, “it doesn’t have to be a Board member.  I have heard people at our organization say about wealthy donor prospects, ‘they have money, they should be giving more to us.'”

Heads around the room nodded in agreement and others began quietly talking to their neighbors about similar experiences.  It seemed most everyone in the room was familiar with the “culture of ought.”

In this culture, organizational leaders and team members adopt a self-centered view of the world that injures the effectiveness of development activities.  They would never say it quite this way nor admit to this belief, but a “culture of ought” commends people to believe their organization’s mission and their work is so important that donors and prospects with resources should feel honored to give to them.  It is the responsibility of the Board member or major donor with capacity to engage with the organization.  Fundamentally, a “culture of ought” absolves organizational leaders and development team members from their responsibility to engage all donors and prospects.

The real concern associated with a “culture of ought” is the suggestion that donors and prospects are not much use to our organizations, except through the exercise of opening their checkbooks.  When we find ourselves living in a “culture of ought,” we also devalue the experiences, intellect, perspectives, and opinions of our major donors and prospects to enhance our organization’s impact.

When we first value our Board members, major donors, and prospects as whole persons who embody exceptional value for our organizations beyond their wallets, we will ask them very different questions and request that they help us in very different ways.  When we first engage those closest to us meaningfully, we will establish an environment in which generosity will be practiced.

When I finally responded to the woman’s question during my presentation, I simply said,

“A culture of ought isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  It’s really all about changing our focus of the “ought.”  Here is what I mean:  Of course we shouldn’t expect any Board member nor donor to give to us because they “ought to.”  Instead, we must take responsibility for their involvement and, in turn, their giving to us.   We “ought” to strengthen our organization’s posture of engagement and involvement of people who are closest to us.  When we develop that “culture of ought,” our organizations will grow in effectiveness and our Board members and donors will increase their giving.”


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