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Create a Culture of Gratitude in Your Organization to Support Your Philanthropy

We’ve been talking about having a “culture of philanthropy” in the nonprofit world for a very long time. We’re still talking about it. But why? Why is it still so prevalent in the philanthropic conversation? Because we haven’t quite figured it out yet.

Culture Is the Way Things Get Done

Culture permeates all activities in an organization—it’s the attitudes, beliefs, actions and values of the people who make up the organization. It is the unspoken element that often unconsciously drives decision-making and is manifested in the way staff members relate to each other and respond to the circumstances they face. Simply put, culture is the way things get done. And more importantly, culture beats strategy every single time.

What Is a Culture of Gratitude?

In the last few years, studies about the effect of gratitude on health and well-being hit the mainstream. The conversation has shifted from a culture of philanthropy to a culture of gratitude. Patients are grateful. Alums are grateful. Boards and volunteers are grateful. Program recipients are grateful. But, what about the staff that provides the source of that gratitude? Are they grateful? How can philanthropic professionals instill a sense of gratitude internally that will express itself organically to donors?

We have to understand that you can’t have one (philanthropy) without the other (gratitude). It takes time, patience, education and persistence to achieve a culture of gratitude. As if that weren’t challenging enough, you then have to marry it to philanthropy.

We Need a Microwave

I love to re-tell the story I heard of a donor who was being stewarded by a hospital’s philanthropy professionals. They had spent a lot of time understanding this donor’s values and beliefs and figuring out how to match that understanding with the donor’s philanthropic interests. It was a sincere approach to ensuring the donor came first.

Well, this donor was then admitted to this hospital. Thankfully, it was nothing serious, but this was a huge opportunity to show gratitude and hospitality to one of the organization’s best friends. However, the donor’s most intense interactions were with the physicians and, most importantly, the nurses. The donor wanted to thank them for all they did for him and his family, “You’ve all been magnificent. I’m so grateful for everything you’ve done for me. How can I thank you?” The response could have been, “It’s our privilege to care for you. We have so many fabulous programs here that our friends support. May we have someone from our Foundation speak with you about those? We definitely need partnerships to make this level of care possible for everyone.”

Sadly, the actual response was, “Well, we do need a new microwave for our lounge.” Guess what? He donated a microwave. It’s tough to come back from that with a major gift proposal. Without that bigger picture view of philanthropy, outcomes like this are common. It’s up to the development professionals to share funding priorities. Consistent communication is one of the most important ways to build a culture that embraces gratitude manifested in philanthropy.

Understanding Gratitude and Philanthropy

The lesson here is that a culture of gratitude and philanthropy must start with the people in your organization rather than with your grateful and/or potential donors. This is where it gets a little tricky because none of your colleagues signed up to be a “fundraiser,” and they visibly cringe when you mention it. But you can challenge this and help them understand the donor’s perspective. Patients, alums, etc., often wish to express their gratitude in a meaningful way. This expression must be allowed in one way or another, but it’s entirely up to the philanthropic team to determine whether that’s a microwave or a new wing. That’s where a culture of philanthropy comes in. Your organization has to be given the opportunity to understand the philanthropic process—not fundraising, but philanthropy. There’s a very big difference. Fundraising is transactional (e.g., a microwave), while philanthropy is transformational. That’s the deep understanding development professionals should seek to embed in their organizations.

It’s our opportunity and obligation to educate our colleagues about the proven and powerful impact gratitude has on our donors. It’s also important to provide a way for those who directly provide programs to feel comfortable responding to this gratitude. Our colleagues should hear that need and respond by connecting donors to the natural link between their gratitude and the philanthropic possibilities it can unleash.

Living a Culture of Philanthropy

In developing a culture of gratitude based on philanthropy, it’s critical to emphasize a positive experience for your colleagues as well as your donors. Developing mutual trust is vital to ensuring this critically important relationship between the organization and its philanthropic arm is successful.

An example of this in action is found in one of my most memorable and meaningful conversations with a donor couple:

I was leading my team and organization in the biggest campaign of its history. One of my first gift invitation calls was with a wonderful couple who had done some very generous things for the community through our organization. I was sure their gift to our organization’s new medical campus would be huge. I felt pretty confident. My CEO and I sat down with them and went over the project, explaining the positive impact it would have on the community and patients. We asked for a six-figure gift. We waited. And waited.

Then, they finally spoke, “You know we love what you’re doing. It’s important, and we want to help make it happen. But here’s where our hearts are. We had this incident in our family where one of our nephews was burned very badly in a house fire. It was such an awful experience for all of us. It was excruciating. We were hoping the new medical center would have a burn unit. We want to make a difference for kids and families who are going through that painful experience.”

Guess what? We did not have a burn unit. We did not plan to ever have a burn unit. We had nothing that would express this couple’s particular passion. I looked at my CEO, took a deep breath, and said, “We’re just not equipped as an organization to operate a burn unit, but I know of a stellar, highly reputable burn unit that is achieving ground-breaking results. Would you like for me to set up a meeting?”

Yes, of course, they did. I paired them with my colleague and walked away. They gave a very significant gift to my colleague’s organization—larger than the one we had suggested (they also made a smaller gift to our new campus). Was I bummed about not getting this large gift for my organization? You bet. Was I worried about getting fired? A little! Fortunately, my team and I had spent a lot of time working with a supportive leader to create a culture of gratitude through philanthropy. We had painstakingly built a philanthropic program that truly put the donor first and exemplified trust, authenticity, honesty and a love of humanity. We (and I definitely include myself in the royal “we”) can forget this in the day-to-day activity that never seems to end.

But when it comes down to it, never let the work get in the way of the job, which is to inspire joy and gratitude through giving.

About the Author

Penny Cowden

Penny Cowden, CFRE, FAHP, MPA, Managing Director

Penny Cowden, CFRE, FAHP, MPA, a new member of the Carter team as a Managing Director, has over 25 years of combined consulting and nonprofit experience. Penny works with organizations’ development staff, executive leadership and board leadership providing counsel in fundraising, campaign counsel and readiness, leadership coaching, and organizational assessment. She has held leadership positions with PeaceHealth in Washington State, Sisters of Charity in Colorado, Inova Health System in Virginia, Caromont Health in North Carolina and Banner Health in Arizona. Penny currently resides in Gearhart, Oregon.

About Carter:
When it comes to transformational change, nonprofits are experts at knowing what they need to achieve but don’t always have the tools they need to get there. Carter makes the journey easier. With over 1,000 years of combined experience, the Carter team is comprised of over 40 senior-level professionals working to advance philanthropy worldwide through fundraising, organizational planning and governance. For more information, visit www.carter.global.

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