Is Building a Philanthropic Culture the Key to Your Success?

Businesswoman discusses corporate charity opportunity

Over the past 10 years, there has been growing emphasis on fundraising leadership and innovation. Underpinning both of these is organisational culture and how it influences fundraising success and donor wellbeing.

Organisational culture is important because it is the shared thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and values that employees and volunteers use to determine how they think, speak and act at work. Culture determines how people problem solve and make decisions, so it is extremely powerful, yet few organisations fully understand their organisation’s culture and how critically it impacts organisational performance.

Fund development/sustainability is acknowledged as THE key issue for most nonprofit organisations and often this resourcing is generated through philanthropic giving and fundraising.

Here’s an irony though. Typically, organisations have no problem with investing time and resources on acquiring donors. Without them, the organisation would not survive or be able to achieve its goals. But what about culture? Do organisations spend the time and resources needed to develop a philanthropic culture that might have a dramatic effect on its fundraising effectiveness?

What is a Philanthropic Culture?

Philanthropic culture is the way people think and talk about giving, philanthropy and fundraising within an organisation. The principles that support this culture include believing everyone in the organisation’s community (not just fundraisers) have a role and responsibility to tell the organisation’s story – to engage donors, contribute personally to back belief in the organisation’s work, and to share examples of need and the impact that occurs when people give. This culture values the health and wellbeing of donors and everyone is involved in providing great donor experiences, showing appreciation to donors, and celebrating the role they play in achieving the organisation’s purpose and goals.

Organisational culture is influenced most heavily by leadership, and philanthropic culture is no different. You cannot have a culture of philanthropy if leadership does not understand it and is not committed to it. That is why this culture is observed most prominently in organisations that invest in supporting all leaders, including the Board, to understand ethical fundraising principles, and how their role and decisions impact on attaining fundraising success. When leaders learn that it is not about making everyone into a frontline fundraiser, but rather about everyone being an ambassador for philanthropy and fund development, the culture starts to shift. Staff, volunteers, beneficiaries, and donors recognise it whenever they connect with the organisation because the conversations are donor-centric, and people are working collaboratively and creatively to find ways to share new stories and make decisions that are aligned with the organisation’s philanthropic goals to achieve their impact in the community.

In her book, Strategic Fund Development. Building Profitable Relationships That Last (Third Edition, 2011), Simone Joyaux sums it up nicely: ‘A culture of philanthropy means that everyone accepts and celebrates the beauty of philanthropy and donors, no matter the type or size of the gift.’ She goes on to explain that when both the corporate culture and systems to support fundraising and are effective, the organisation flourishes.

The potential benefits of developing a philanthropic culture has created a partnership between QUT’s Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies (ACPNS) and Dr Adrian Sargeant from the UK’s Institute for Sustainable Philanthropy who has created a tool so that organisations can measure and monitor their philanthropic culture.

The tool helps organisations understand the shared beliefs about fundraising and donors, the role of fundraisers and the Board. The goals of the tool and the research are to gain more evidence about whether organisations live and breathe the culture they desire, or where there are areas for development and leadership.

After conducting the culture assessment recently Rob Daly from the Burnet Institute said:

Even the simple act of promoting the ACPNS survey has helped us introduce the concept of philanthropic culture to staff.  For the philanthropy team, and Burnet as a whole, the survey has provided a baseline to build from, and more importantly, we now have the insights to inform where we need to focus our efforts over the next 12-18 months to encourage a culture of philanthropy.”

How can a philanthropic culture help organisations?

Katherine Ash, from the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Queensland), says that developing a philanthropic culture involves providing tools for non-fundraising staff to be able to engage with donors and empowering them to be good storytellers. This increases their confidence to be more effective advocates for the organisation and can “open up fundraising opportunities and donor engagements that you didn’t have access to before”.

But the benefits are more far-reaching than just increasing revenue.

The report ‘Beyond Fundraising. What Does it Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?’ suggests that organisations with a culture of philanthropy are more likely to “strengthen trust, cooperation and engagement among board and staff members; and align mission and program goals more seamlessly with revenue generation”.

As we move into 2021, after a year of uncertainty and change, a strong and positive organisational culture is critical to ensure everyone throughout an organisation is feeling energised and has a shared vision about how to improve fundraising performance. Does your organisation have a culture of philanthropy?

The ACPNS survey

The ACPNS survey is particularly useful for Board members, nonprofit leaders and fundraisers. If you would like to assess your own culture, you can take the 10-minute survey .

Use ACPNS’s FREE handout to discuss philanthropic culture with your team. For more information contact Dr Ruth Knight

What’s next?


This article published by Philanthropy Australia as “Building a philanthropic culture may be the key to your 2021 success”


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Following a 20 year career in health and community services, Dr Ruth Knight works with the Australian Centre of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies at QUT as a lecturer and researcher specialising in the fields of managing social sector organisations and social enterprise. Her work with organisations addressing homelessness, suicide prevention, community development, culture and leadership, has fuelled her passionate pursuit of finding innovative ways to achieve social change.

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