Advancing Philanthropy

Philanthropy in Focus: Living Your Organizational Culture

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“Values and behavior are the outer expressions of culture. In order for an organization to have a culture, the values must be lived.” —Simon Sinek

The Integration of Development and Marketing Disciplines

Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek captured the essence of building an effective organizational culture. His now famous TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” has received more than 58 million views and counting—and remains one of the most popular TED Talks of all time.

Sinek’s book, “Start With Why,” is about finding your sense of purpose both personally and professionally. As nonprofit professionals, we’ve purposefully selected a sector whose underlying mission is to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate. We find a sense of fulfillment in serving others, and we embrace the power of doing good. Philanthropy, by definition, is about improving the lives of others.

I extend my sincere appreciation for your career decision as I know that our sector is, unfortunately, known for earning less than comparable positions in the private sector, coupled with working long hours to address increasing needs. However, our passion for our respective causes transcends these negative factors. We live lives filled with purpose and meaning—it is an amazing way to wake up every day knowing we are making the world a better place.

A culture of philanthropy is a unified approach where everyone in the organization embraces a donor-centered environment.

With our respective sense of self and the causes we hold so deeply, how do we extend and leverage this passion for the betterment of our organization? How do we serve as ambassadors who live and lead by example? To answer these questions, one must first understand two underlying concepts: Living a Culture of Philanthropy and Living the Brand. Integrating these two disciplines is a process that will pay dividends for your organization.

Living A Culture of Philanthropy

A culture of philanthropy is a unified approach where everyone in the organization embraces a donor-centered environment. While there are slight variances to this definition, the overall concept is widely accepted. Articles, books and thought papers have been written on how to build and practice a culture of philanthropy. Some of the better thought pieces include “Building a Culture of Philanthropy: The Five Pillars,” by Community Funded,1 which summarizes that Community members should always feel like they belong (inclusion), believe in the purpose their community exists (transparency), have opportunities to tell their story (empowerment), have the power to help others tell their stories (collaboration), and feel like their contributions are valued (celebration).

The Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund published, “Beyond Fundraising: What Does it Mean to Build a Culture of Philanthropy?” a 34-page report that suggests that a culture of philanthropy is one in which everyone—board, staff and executive director—has a part to play in raising resources for the organization.2

The late fundraising expert, Simone Joyaux defined organizational culture as 1) the personality of an organization, 2) philanthropic culture as a subset of organizational culture, and 3) a fundraising culture that focuses on money.3
What unifies these approaches, opinions and philosophies is that a culture requires the involvement, participation, and “buy-in” from everyone in the organization. It is not the development director’s or the development department’s sole responsibility but an overarching understanding that building a culture of philanthropy requires everyone associated with the organization to embrace this concept.

The culture includes all organization touch points—how your main telephone is answered, how and when you team responds to emails, what you and others post on social media channels, the information displayed on your website, and how you interact with your colleagues, volunteers, lay leaders, and the community at-large are all reflections of organizational culture.

Organizational culture starts at the top with your executive director and board chair and transcends down to all departments and all levels. It is also important that the culture extends beyond the internal staff and that volunteers understand how a culture of philanthropy allows the organization they support to survive and thrive.

The key point of differentiation is an understanding that fundraising is transactional, while philanthropy is transformational.

Living the Brand

Building a culture of philanthropy is one component. Equally important is building your organization’s brand. As a former advertising agency executive, I believe there is a distinct parallel and correlation of building a culture of philanthropy with building a strong brand. The nonprofit sector must also learn and embrace the concept of branding and understand that nonprofit organizations are indeed living and breathing brands. While they are not selling products, they are promoting their mission, vision and establishing connections.

One of the better definitions of branding I have found is a modified version of Philip Kotler’s well-regarded definition of brand positioning. Namely, that a brand is “a piece of real estate you occupy in a person’s mind and the impression it leaves behind.”

This definition applies to nonprofits as we must also differentiate and position ourselves against other organizations. Our challenge is to determine our Unique Selling Proposition (USP)—and namely, what can we say and do that no other organization can? The positioning needs to resonate with our valued donors and supporters. It needs to also be embraced both internally as well as externally. All successful brands find the right balance of positioning their rational (head) and emotional (heart) attributes. The messaging strikes an emotional connection that ultimately turns into support and loyalty. Nonprofits have an inherent heart as to what we do—the challenge is more about determining the head attributes that uniquely position yourself from other organizations. By touching the heart first, the head will quickly follow, and ultimately so will charitable donations of support.

Just as a culture of philanthropy requires “buy-in” from all constituencies, so does branding for many of the same reasons. Your organization’s communications strategy should be integrated among your various vehicles with message consistency and continuity. The objective is for your organization to tell its story repeatedly both through online and offline channels. Your story can and should be told by your cadre of ambassadors—every staff member and your leadership, donors, recipients, etc. While their individual stories may differ, the message is the same: how your organization improves lives for the better.


I first heard the term brandraising from Sarah Durham,4 author of Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications, and founder of Big Duck, a New York-based communications firm for nonprofits. The term promotes the discipline of speaking with one voice—an integrated marketing strategy.

Brandraising is Big Duck’s approach to nonprofit branding and starts with having internal clarity about the big ideas guiding your organization and intention about how you want to be perceived.

I often refer to this Big Duck quote in my discussions about nonprofit branding as it captures and stresses the importance of being an ongoing organizational practice:

“Branding is not a one-time fix, limited to a shiny new logo, nor is it a memorable elevator pitch. It is an ongoing practice of aligning around your organization’s identity and voice internally, then using it to create experiences that shape perceptions and behaviors that advance an organization’s mission and spark collective change.”

—Sarah Durham and Farra Trompeter, Big Duck

Living a Culture of Gratitude

We are fortunate to be employed in a sector that truly makes a difference in the lives of others. We serve and assist others—a truly gratifying feeling to know we are leaving this world a better place. Our story is personal yet important to tell and share with others. We are ultimately ambassadors for our respective organizations, assisting in building a culture of philanthropy as well as building the brand. The integration of philanthropy and marketing ensures consistent communication with shared responsibility in message delivery. A direct outcome is living a culture of gratitude—being thankful for how we collectively improve the world. We are the hand that comforts the spirit—a powerful concept that fuels our passion. I also embrace this quote from management consultant, Peter Drucker, as it emphasizes the human factor in developing and nurturing an effective organizational culture—it’s all about the people!

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

—Peter Drucker

When you love what you do, it is easy to embrace your career. As such, I have often found it difficult to separate my personal and professional life as I live and lead by example. I cannot simply turn off my professional hat when the workday ends because it blends into my personal life. I share the day’s successes at the dinner table, serve as a role model for my children and live a life of value. Volunteering for my local AFP chapter has also enabled me to broaden my scope and put my values into action. The friendships and relationships I’ve made extend well beyond the silos of my organization and have a greater community voice for the common good.

Find your “Why” and live your organizational culture for the greatest impact both personally and professionally.

Seth J. KatzenSeth J. Katzen is president and CEO of Jewish Federation of Delaware and president-elect of the AFP Brandywine Chapter serving Delaware and the Brandywine Valley.

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