Ask Yourself One Question to Discover Your Nonprofit’s Culture of Philanthropy

One Question

A culture of philanthropy is that elusive, undefinable goal of every nonprofit. You can feel it when it is happening, like everything and everyone is clicking together toward the common good. Like singing in a choir, or rowing in a crew, the goodwill and team atmosphere of a nonprofit with a thriving culture of philanthropy can at times feel effortless.

But how do you know if you have a culture of philanthropy?  Ask yourself one question about your employees and key volunteers: Do they demonstrate philanthropy freely toward your organization or cause?

Discovering Your Culture of Philanthropy

Look closely: I did not say, “Has this employee or volunteer made a gift to my nonprofit?” Instead I used the words “demonstrate philanthropy.” Because not everyone realistically has extra money to give charitably, as much as they may want to. Instead, consider the other gifts they freely give that help represent or elevate your nonprofit’s mission in your community.

Another way to think about this is: does your employee offer a little extra, unrelated to their basic duties? For example, a front-line program staff person offers to call donors during a phone-a-thon because they want to tell them stories about their work. Nonprofit storytelling is so important!

Or does the executive team attempt to attend the performances of your organization without being told? Does a part-time employee make the effort to learn your case for support and mention it to potential donors during a fundraising campaign? The culture of philanthropy so often is found in “actions speak louder than words.”

The reason why this metric is so important to a nonprofit organization is because donor relationships are built on trust. Donors look to you to provide them with a meaningful cause paired with an institution that will steward their investment appropriately. You are asking them to give freely, without a direct financial incentive.

So why wouldn’t you aspire for someone who does receive a direct financial incentive to give freely, too?

When you establish a culture of philanthropy in your organization, employees demonstrate philanthropy freely toward the place that rewards them financially. If staff members cannot be inspired to support, in their own way, a place that pays them, how can you attempt to inspire anyone else?

What if People Resist Creating a Culture of Philanthropy?

If you find some employees consider their job at your nonprofit to be just like any other job, think of this as a challenge. See if there are ways to engage this person in the nonprofit and if they are receptive to learning more about the mission. Look for the little extras; the willingness to give freely in a way that is appropriate and genuine for them.

It is not ethical or appropriate to penalize someone who does not demonstrate a culture of philanthropy, give to an employee giving campaign, or volunteer for an event. Developing a cohesive culture of philanthropy among staff and key volunteers is an aspirational goal and sign of a thriving organization.

Identifying Employees Demonstrating Culture of Philanthropy

Development staff and nonprofit leaders should be open-minded when it comes to identifying examples of a culture of philanthropy within their organization. Everyone shows their appreciation and connection to the cause in their own unique way.

Introduce an engagement activity for staff to discover their definition of a culture of philanthropy. Ask employees to describe how they feel connected to the mission through their work and encourage sharing in a staff meeting. Create and email a survey or leave an old-fashioned comment box in a common area. These responses can remain anonymous so people express themselves freely.

Leaders will learn the preferred ways their employees and co-workers wish to engage with your mission and understand how their staff see themselves already giving back. Before you make assumptions that someone is detached from your mission, respect their perspective first.

If the answers you receive are unexpected, use them as a way to more meaningfully engage with people across your organization. Perhaps communications within the nonprofit can be improved so employees feel more informed. Or maybe it is time to re-evaluate your case for support so it is more resonant with the people in your community (remember: your employees are your community members!).


A thriving nonprofit should make every attempt to develop a culture of philanthropy. By investing in this foundational tool, nonprofits run a smoother and more inspired organization, infused with purpose.

Ask yourself one question to measure the culture of philanthropy at your organization: Do employees and key volunteers demonstrate philanthropy freely?

When you know any staff person or volunteer has formed a personal connection to your mission, and gives freely of themselves in a genuine way, you have achieved the aspirational goal of a culture of philanthropy.

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