Four Tips to Help Nonprofit Marketing Departments Create a Culture of Philanthropy

June 12, 2017 Beth Kanter

Today’s nonprofit marketers must be experts in learning how to shift their organizational culture towards a culture of philanthropy. To do so, they need to be skilled collaborators, adept at bringing diverse perspectives together, and confident in their abilities to collaboratively steward supporters at every touchpoint along the ladder of engagement with other teams, departments, and senior leadership. This gets to the heart of the best practices that are needed to create a culture of philanthropy within anonprofit organization.

But the reality is that in many nonprofit organizations, different teams and departments do not have a shared mental model for a culture of philanthropy. Even worse, they don’t appear to be speaking the language and may work as isolated islands instead of finding ways to build bridges together to cultivate and engage supporters and do it with common values, culture, vocabulary, and practices.

What happens as a result is that it makes it impossible to build sustainable relationships with donors over the long haul.  Supporters have a disjointed experience with an organization they care about because of organizational silos. It also creates a problem internally where turf wars and a noncollaborative environment lead to frustration, burnout, and staff turnover.

Shifting the organization’s culture is a process, and it takes time. It also takes paying attention to organizational culture or the way works gets done, in addition to deadlines and deliverables. Nonprofit marketing teams want opportunities to improve their cross-departmental collaboration skills and competencies, but it also takes a new organizational mindset to nurture their development. Effective collaboration happens when teams create the time and space for learning across an organization and when it becomes ingrained into an organization’s DNA.

What does this look like in practice? It means incorporating learning as part of doing the work. It isn’t enough to just read an article about good team collaboration, it is also necessary to practice it in the workplace. The nature of today’s nonprofit workplace——face-paced and heavy workloads—makes it difficult to find the reflective time to put together a learning plan and implement it consistently.

For the past six months, I’ve been collaborating with Third Plateau Social Impact on the “Emerging Leaders Playbook,” with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Designed as a leadership development resource for emerging leaders working in nonprofits, it can be used by any nonprofit seeking to build a culture of philanthropy internally because the content is focused on team collaboration skills and culture change.

The Playbook features a highly practical toolkit that consists of facilitator agendas and worksheets for nonprofit staff to apply the ideas and frameworks. Below are a few techniques and processes that your team can use to help your organization practice cross departmental collaboration and learn how to begin to work towards building a culture of philanthropy throughout your organization.

Four Tips to Help Nonprofit Marketing Departments Create a Culture of Philanthropy

1. Get Everyone Aligned Around the Culture of Philanthropy

Too many nonprofit staff are so busy doing the work, they don’t step back to consider the bigger picture of organizational culture and a shared mental model. Creating a culture of philanthropy begins with paying attention to it, and it has to start from the top!

Business guru Peter F. Drucker asserted that the responsibility for setting the tone of an organization –the culture—rests with the leader, someone who places high expectations for performance and results, acts with integrity and expects others to do the same, and shows genuine concern for the value of creating a culture of philanthropy. According to Drucker, these leadership qualities create an effective organization because others will emulate the leader’s behavior.

This activity can be used at an organizational offsite gathering for a cross-functional team of marketers, fundraisers, and program staff to generate a common purpose around a culture of philanthropy and explicit cultural norms. Be sure to have leadership kick off the session by discussing the importance of philanthropy to the organization.

If everyone in your organization or team feels like they are contributing to the culture of philanthropy, they are more likely to live and incorporate that culture into all facets of their work. This activity helps you articulate why a culture of philanthropy is important, your values, and the way you work. By defining shared values from the beginning and then promoting these values along the way, later when challenges or unknowns arise, your team’s shared values will provide a guide.

Here are some more resources about the process of organizational culture change.

2. Deepen Cross-Departmental Understanding

Too often, teams are siloed by function. The fundraising department only meets with its staff.  The marketing department only meets with its staff. The program department only meets with its staff and so on. Staff across the organization need to understand how donor stewardship and engagement cut across all departments and contribute to a culture of philanthropy.

The more cross-department communication that promotes understanding of a culture of philanthropy, the more buy-in you’ll have. If you have a cross-disciplinary team that consists of staff from marketing, fundraising, and other departments, think about how you can best design those meetings so they are not simply reporting but nurturing a culture of philanthropy.

In between meetings, experiment with having a staff person from your marketing team attend other department meetings monthly and report back.  Also, invite people from other departments to attend your marketing team’s meetings. One option might be to focus on solving internal bottlenecks between fundraising and other departments. Here’s a meeting process that you can use to identify challenges and find solutions.

3. Practice Culture of Philanthropy Rituals and Incorporate Cues

Rituals are repeated behaviors that foster a positive work environment and tell a story about your organization’s culture of philanthropy. At the Cara Program, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps adults affected by homelessness and poverty get and keep quality jobs, all stakeholders engage in a daily morning ritual that evolved organically over the organization’s 25-year history. Every morning, clients, staff, and guests gather in a circle in the organization’s meeting room and answer a question of the day and share inspiring stories of growth and change. The morning ritual is a chance for all to reflect on the organization’s results and be inspired. Cara incorporates many other rituals to create community and align with a culture of philanthropy, including organizing communal meals as well as taking field trips once a quarter where they tackle a topic or let off steam. They’ve even held a karaoke event.

As your cross-developmental team begins to meet regularly, identify some rituals that you can do together that will help boost your team’s morale and align with the culture of philanthropy you want to create. This can be as simple as taking 15–20 minutes at the beginning of your team meeting to share stories of donors and the individuals who have been changed by the donors’ gifts and all the staff members who had a role in bringing about this change. Other options may include gratitude practice, taking field trips to observe the program in action, recognizing different staff or volunteers for their work that resulted in acts of philanthropy, or hearing from people helped by your organization’s mission. Whatever rituals you create, design them so that they help shift from a focus on dollars and deliverables and see your organization’s program from the beneficiaries or donors’ point of view.

Cues are simple reminders that keep people in touch with the values that support a culture of philanthropy. These can be as simple as posters stating your team’s core values that you created as part of the earlier exercise or photographs on the walls of clients or donors.

4. Use Human-Centered Design Methods to Help Everyone Understand the Donor’s Experience with Your Organization

Human-centered design is a method that helps organizations design programs, campaigns, and services from the point of view of the people being served. Your organization’s donors don’t just interact with the development office. There are many different techniques and applications, but the end result is that the research and feedback can help your organization learn more about your donors’ disjointed experience and how to ensure that everyone and every department is helping them experience the joy of giving to your organization.

One useful technique is called “walk-a-mile-immersion.” It literally means putting yourself in the shoes and mindset of your donors, clients, or even staff to experience things from their perspective.  It helps your team deepen their empathy for others and use that experience to better inform decision-making for campaigns, website, strategy, or internal processes. Here’s an example of a mayor who slept in a cardboard box outside to learn of the plight of homeless people in his city.

Your cross-departmental team should identify an experience you want to better understand. This could be the experience of making a donation on your website from start to finish or renewing a membership. You’ll need to determine what tasks your team will perform and do them, taking notes about the experience. Then as a group, you will debrief your experience and discuss ideas to improve the experience.

Here are some additional resources on how to use other design-thinking methods.

If your nonprofit marketing team is seeking to create a culture of philanthropy, go beyond reading about it and practice it! The ideas above will help you get started on your way. .

Workplace culture defines the way that everyone in your nonprofit interacts and works. The components of organizational culture, according to CultureLab, include purpose, values, behaviors, recognition, rituals, and cues. Research shows that an organization’s culture dramatically affects its ability to get results. Culture impacts all areas of the organization. Often, the fundraising function is viewed as the task of getting dollars in the door, typically a siloed department and just the means to the mission.

To be effective, this attitude needs to be reversed. Every staff and board member and every team need to embrace the importance of being supporter-centered as well as mission-centered. They need to be champions for the organization’s programs and services, but also for philanthropy and donor stewardship. It isn’t about training everyone in your organization to ask for donations, but to believe in the organization’s impact and embracing their role in that process as a team.

While organizational culture is often set by an organization’s leadership (board and staff), it needs to be co-created by everyone in the organization. Organizations need to live by these values, reinforcing them every day with the way they work.

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