Creating a Culture of Giving

Creating a culture of giving. This is one of those vague, euphemistic, “philanthropy-speak” terms that has come into vogue in the last five years or so. It is a tactful and politically correct way to say “get people to give more money” that increasingly shows up in many schools’ strategic plans and annual goals. In a recent visit with a client in the throes of a $15 million endowment campaign, our discussion turned to the question of how you develop this culture of giving, and specifically what are the obstacles that can stand in the way.

When posed the question of obstacles, trustees immediately identified the list of usual suspects: economic downturn, tuition increases, competing organizations, unenlightened parents who have not yet discovered the joy of giving generously. Discussion then turned to strategies and tactics: clearly state the institution’s expectations for charitable support, educate new families about how independent schools are funded (the infamous “gap” between tuition and the cost of education) and lead by example. Reflecting later on this dialogue, which was courageous and somewhat uncomfortable for a community that considers a family’s financial commitments a private matter, I had an “aha” moment.

I believe we are mistaken if we focus on how to increase giving – that is treating the symptom, not the disease. Instead, we need to direct our energy toward inspiring a culture of shared values and collective passion. We need to engage parents, alumni and grandparents in conversations about what they love most about a school, and how can we make it an even better place for the next generation. By asking the right questions, encouraging honest discourse, and listening with humility, we can peel back the onion and move a community to that innermost level of authentic connection around what people really care about – educating children to become intelligent, creative and compassionate contributors to their world. Once we have staked out that common ground of shared purpose and passion, the elusive "culture of giving" will take root and flourish. I would offer that it’s not about increasing annual fund participation rates, or moving donors to the next giving level. Success lies in building an emotional “home” for our donors where they know their values are an intrinsic component of the life of the school today and always. The money will follow – trust me.

~Tracy