Actions Are Louder Than Words

May 13, 2014

I work with a wide variety of organizations and one of the things I enjoy most is getting to know everyone, from the person who greets people at the front desk to the chair of the board and all manner of folks in between. It’s truly a gift to find organizations who, from top to bottom, understand that everyone has a role to play in fundraising and that creating a positive donor experience is everyone’s responsibility.

It’s rare to find organizations who value their donors as an integral part of their organizational family and who treat their donors with the values that ‘family’ implies.

Values set the tone for culture and help identify what an organization, as a whole, cares about – they guide thinking and actions.  Put simply, values define what matters – that includes things like belonging, trust, accountability, flexibility, respect, honesty, forgiveness, communication, traditions and inclusiveness.

All too often though, I see donors treated simply as a means to an end – as a way to generate revenue, rather than a true part of the organizational family. What do I mean by that?

We’ve all met Executive Directors who don’t understand fundraising, don’t see it as their responsibility and have zero interest in engaging with donors. “My role is to focus on managing and delivering programs. I just don’t feel comfortable talking with donors.” Or Board Members who whole heartedly believe that fundraising is strictly a staff role. “I’m here to provide leadership not ask for money – we have staff for that.” Development staff who don’t have time to engage the donors who are the lifeblood of their organization. “I don’t have time to talk with donors because I’m too busy in meetings.” And other staff who don’t realize their organization fundraises at all, and who have no clue where their funding comes from.

This is a real disconnect.

One of the things I do fairly often in my work is conduct reviews of fundraising programs. Part of my process is to interview key stakeholders, which can include anyone from staff to donors to board members. One of the questions I routinely ask of everyone is ‘do you think your organization has a culture of philanthropy?’

Often people don’t know what that means and when they do, the answer is most often ‘no’.

When a culture of philanthropy exists, every person in the organization understands that they have a fund development role to play and embraces their role in engaging with donors and cultivating good relationships.  The Board, Executive Director, staff at all levels, volunteers – everyone understands that the reason your organization exists and the reason you can do whatever your mission entails is because there are individual and organizational funders ‘out there’ who believe in what you do and are willing to part with their hard-earned cash to fund your work. Donors are understood to be part of the organizational family and are treated as such.

What can you do to create a culture of philanthropy in your organization?

Actions are louder than words.  Does your organization ‘say’ one thing and ‘do’ another? Do you truly walk the talk and deliver on the promises you make to donors? If you don’t, just recognizing that you don’t is the first step to fixing it. Take a look at this and be brutally honest with yourselves.

Initiate dialogue.  You can initiate dialogue and education amongst your staff and colleagues to bring about a culture shift within your organization, keeping in mind that leadership has to be on side for change to come about. Talk about raising money and the role it plays in advancing your organization’s mission.

Define what matters.  You can lead the charge by making time for donors in your day, and create the expectation that others do as well. Talk about your organizational values and build them into a promise to better serve your donors. Write it down and make it available for everyone.

Make a promise.  This is your guarantee to be accountable, to provide the best service possible, to be respectful, to pay attention, to listen, to deliver. Promote the AFP Donor Bill of Rights as important knowledge for your donors and your team.

Engage.  Find ways to have conversations with donors. Move beyond a ‘transactional’ relationship to one that allows for back and forth dialogue.

Practice gratitude.  Be thankful, show appreciation and return the kindness.  Share donor’s comments and stories within your organization. Start every day, or every meeting with a donor story. Celebrate the fact that your organization has the good fortune to have as many supporters as you do. Be gracious with their caring and generosity.

This article first appeared over on The Hilborn: the leading provider of information to Canada’s nonprofit sector.

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Jose Van Herpt, CFRE

Jose Van Herpt, CFRE

Fundraiser. Artist. Nature lover. Peacemaker. Experience junkie. Traveler. Philanthropist. Book enthusiast. Mom to all.