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It’s not uncommon for fundraising practitioners to speak of the culture of philanthropy that exists within their organizations. The term itself has become quite popular in recent years. However, what is uncommon is an ability to collectively articulate what exactly the phrase means, how it looks, how it should be measured, and how those whom the organization serves may benefit from such a culture. As catalysts for change, development professionals have perhaps the best vantage point to view the entire organization. But in order to affect change and help create a philanthropic culture, an understanding of organizational culture is first needed.


There are two schools of thought on organizational culture. Some believe that organizations have cultures. Others believe that organizations are cultures. For the purpose of this paper, organizational culture describes the attitudes, experiences, beliefs, and values of an organization. Simply put, the culture defines how things are done in an organization and how individuals within it interact with one another.


A culture of philanthropy refers to an organization’s attitude toward philanthropy and the development process. But in this instance, philanthropy refers to more than fundraising revenue goals. Practitioners must first understand the value of the organizational culture, the importance of philanthropy, the link between philanthropy and development, and the leadership roles for each of us in this process to truly understand how to create a culture of philanthropy. Even then, there are broader behaviors and practices that must be understood. Below are four key components that will provide a deeper dive into what kind of culture actually exists within your organization. Evidence of a strong culture of philanthropy typically includes:

  • Demonstrated leadership at all organizational levels
  • Authentic storytelling and a commitment to conversation with all stakeholders
  • Mission-driven systems, staffing, structure, and processes
  • Shared values and a collective commitment to a common goal


Creating a culture of philanthropy within an organization begins at the top. The board’s level of engagement is a critical element of a strong philanthropic culture. How often the board meets, the style of the meetings, term limits and rotation schedules, board giving, and the activities of board committees send messages about the value placed upon the board’s leadership in philanthropy. Other critical factors are how the board chooses to measure progress toward mission, the impact of philanthropic efforts, and the importance placed on long-term relationships.

But it doesn’t end there. What’s also required is the ability to lead from the middle – or, quite frankly, wherever your position ranks in the hierarchy. Doing so provides all with the opportunity to impact positive change.

But there are specific aspects to leadership necessary to create a culture of philanthropy beyond the visible willingness of boards to engage in strategy, staff to counsel superiors, or managers to follow subordinates.

Governing boards and senior leadership are responsible for the administration and strategic direction of an organization. Where their sustained focus resides says a great deal about the existing culture, climate, and areas of perceived significance.

Philanthropic organizations have missions. They exist to serve society, not to simply provide employment for those working within them. Leadership must maintain a balanced focus on both the organization’s impact on society and its operational efficiency. Again, this does not stop at the top, but should penetrate deeply to all levels of the organizations.

Organizational attention drifts far too often. Focus shifts solely on operational efficiencies (the cost of raising a dollar is one example) and tactics, as opposed to measuring the intended impact on those served by the organization and society as a whole. Subsequently, without many noticing, board and internal conversations shift to the organization’s needs as opposed to societal needs. Philanthropic support becomes the answer to little more than budgetary gaps as organizational strategy focuses on maintaining organizational profitability rather than serving others.

This diminishes the case for support and the role of philanthropic investments and those willing to make them, and it marginalizes fundraising practitioners as well. Being an efficient organization does not mean it’s more philanthropic.

The responsibility then rests on the entire organization to maintain focus on the mission. Hanging plaques with the mission statement in offices or asking staff to involuntarily stand and recite the mission at staff meetings does not make an organization more philanthropic. Leading, regardless of your position classification, and following while living the mission creates a more philanthropic culture.