Advancing the culture of philanthropy, one broke student at a time

What’s more valuable to a nonprofit that embraces the culture of philanthropy, a major gift of $5,000 or a grad student who sends a $5 check each month? Believe it or not, we should probably be more excited to break out the bubbly for the latter.


culture of philanthropy

Well, not the Dom Perignon – we still have a budget, you know.


Many idealists bounce from one nonprofit to the next, each time disillusioned by what they consider a lack of any discernible culture of philanthropy. Relationships with donors are managed en masse, social media campaigns are about as contrived as they come, fundraisers are heckled daily with unreasonable quotas… you’ve probably seen it yourself many times. Yet fixing the problem isn’t as easy as it might seem. To begin with, advice for cultivating a philanthropic office can be frustratingly vague. Riddled with sexy key words such as “mission,” “synergy,” and “stewardship,” and frequently concluding with the genius observation that it’s necessary to “institutionalize and reinforce desired changes,” these so-called solutions don’t seem workable at all.


A concrete step that more and more innovating nonprofits are taking – and which will likely bear dividends no matter what the size of your office – is to gear operations towards donor-centricity. It’s a bold, somewhat counter-intuitive approach to the mass of donor data that’s currently available to us, data that some experts claim has been horribly misused in ways that actually hinder a nonprofit’s culture of philanthropy. The outdated donation-driven approach forces fundraisers to obsess over (monthly, yearly) monetary goals. It focuses on major gifts like a charging horse wearing blinders. Even in the few areas where personalized stewardship is encouraged, it is always couched in a way meant to extract the most additional money possible, as soon as possible. “Mr. XYZ, thank you for your generous gift of $50. Now would you consider sending us a much-needed donation of $100?” Donation-driven philanthropy is a turn-off to supporters and absolutely demoralizing to idealistic staff members who didn’t realize that they were signing up to become pushy salespeople.



If you act today, I’ll throw in this FREE “our culture of philanthropy is dead” trading card!


In contrast, focusing on donors builds public goodwill, raises office morale, and almost always results in greater philanthropy in the long run. Implementation does require some sacrifice and investment up front. Fundraisers will have to resist the urge to push for more (or more expensive) gifts even if it means not meeting a monthly goal. But the good news is that a lot of the information needed to cultivate dedicated and enthusiastic lifetime supporters is already being collected. What program does this person care about the most? What time of the year does she prefer to donate? Does she live nearby? And the time required for a true culture of philanthropy to blossom only seems unproductive in the context of month-by-month, dollar-by-hour valuation. In the long term, as many studies have indicated, these hours will result in more dollars raised.


So without further ado here are some practical suggestions for how to make donor-centricity work for you:

  • Say thanks in a meaningful way. A personal phone call would be best, but if that’s not possible at least consider a handwritten or hand-signed note.
  • Never make your supporters feel that their gift wasn’t enough. Remember that they’re not required to give anything at all. When thanking someone for their donation, do not take the opportunity to hit them up for another donation. For every person who responds positively to such a request there is another one who will be turned off to your organization for good – not a viable strategy if you care about donor retention at all, and you definitely should.
  • Keep your core supporters updated on social media rather than through letters. Monthly mailings and e-newsletters can be overwhelming and cause donor fatigue. If a supporter only gives around Christmas or right before tax day she might prefer not to hear from your organization for the rest of the year, and you should respect that. In contrast someone who “likes” your nonprofit on Facebook signals that they definitely do want to hear about your latest activities, projects, and success stories. Indulge them!
  • When you do solicit donations, flip the script. In other words, don’t send everyone the same letter. Here’s your chance to use all that data you have! If your supporter donated to a project two years ago that was recently completed, let them know what he’s helped make possible. Discuss the issues that he indicated on past surveys he’s most interested in and the progress your organization has made on those fronts. This isn’t a time-consuming or expensive process – it can be automated with a simple computer program using information from your donor database – but it shows people that you care about their experience as donors.
  • Utilize “ambient” opportunities. This is particularly useful for small, local charities because it’s both engaging and low-pressure. Post about volunteer opportunities, clothes drives, and fundraising events on Facebook. Supporters have the opportunity to interact with each other, which deepens enthusiasm for your cause and your organization. Even if they only “like” or “share” your post, it keeps you present in their thoughts and helps spread your message on social media.
  • Send tokens of appreciation. Birthday cards, magnets, flashlight keychains, little teddy bears to celebrate five years of steadfast support.
  • Remember that the culture of philanthropy depends on everyone in your office. Apply the same donor-centricity to internal giving (particularly Board giving, which is usually met with nonchalance rather than celebrated as the enormously generous, critical support line that it is). A CEO or Executive Director should lead by example by instituting metrics and goals that center on the lifetime value of a donor rather than on monthly quotas.

Send something unbearably cute if you really want to make an impression.


Now let’s go back to that grad student and her measly $5 monthly donation. Let’s say she keeps it up for four more years, then graduates, finds a great job, and increases her monthly give to $30. Let’s say she also volunteers for one event a year and once donates a weekend at her timeshare for a silent auction. And finally let’s say that her glowing Facebook support of your nonprofit inspires one of her friends to follow in her footsteps every five years (a very conservative estimate as anyone studying social media influence will tell you). Over the course of this modest but dedicated supporter’s lifetime, she will contribute to your nonprofit the value of $168,000, not to mention an amount of authentic positive sentiment that money simply can’t buy. That’s how embracing a donor-centric approach can create a sustainable and highly profitable culture of philanthropy. One that even the most starry-eyed idealist in your office will love.