What the Heck is a “Culture of Philanthropy”?

By Moshe Hecht

You know when you’re at a meeting, and the person leading said meeting keeps throwing around a term over and over again, and you’re just sitting there, scratching your head thinking, what the heck are you saying?!

Well that’s me.

I sit on the board of a local nonprofit. I love it. It’s a great org with great people, and I’m crazy about everything they do. What I’m not so crazy about is this phrase that keeps popping up like a 2012 candy crush notification.

And it goes something like this: “We’ve got to create a culture of philanthropy.”

Working at a nonprofit, you’re probably trying to build one right now; think you’ve built one; or perhaps, are at the initial stages of exploring the ways a “culture of philanthropy” can be cultivated at your org. That being said, can one of you please just tell me once and for all what a “culture of philanthropy” really means?

Is it creating a culture within your organization that makes giving hip and cool? Where potential donors recognize the urgency of your cause? Where everyone understands why their own hard earned dollars are necessary and vital to your org’s survival?

We operate under this belief that once this happens – once donors finally get it – they’ll be self-motivated to give more, fundraising will get easier, and we can all get a decent night’s sleep for the first time in years.

But people, we can do better!

Because most of us already know NPO’s need our help to do good in the world, and that our contributions are important, recognized and appreciated. BUT, no matter how much we know or care about your org, we will never care as deeply about it as you, the person who lives and breathes for the survival of this cause.

So how do we do it?

We don’t. Well, not exactly.

When I was 20 I tried to be Russian. No joke. I get this might be a touchy subject for some considering today’s climate, but it was 2005 and this wide-eyed chassid from New York was suddenly transported to the land of Dostoevsky, bath houses, and more importantly, vodka. Lots of vodka. It was all part of a 1.5 year student initiative to help local Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union. I lived in an orphanage, learned with young adults and college students, distributed food to financially struggling families, and led holiday programs.

Here in this land of drama and drink, I gained my first understanding of “culture.” Like any eager young student, I went to the book market – to the pages of Pushkin, Tolstoy and Chekhov. I sipped chai on train rides from Kharkov to Moscow and feasted on borscht and black bread. I joined friends for a drink (or two) then sweated it all out in the steaming banyas. I even hired a tutor to guide me through the complexities of the Russian tongue. Klasna!

And then I came home.

Back to bodegas, overpriced coffee and avoiding any and all eye contact with that person sitting across from me in the train. Because the truth is I can’t be Russian. No matter where I go, I carry my own New York culture with me. Because this culture is what makes me, well, me. And it takes eons to develop. And though always in motion, it’s ingrained in every fiber of our society and in all the actions that we, as a community, do. It’s not just the way we eat, drink, sleep, travel, love, congregate, learn, pray, and dance, it’s the values that infiltrate across the sectors of business, home, church, synagogue, and school.

So back to my board meeting at my favorite NPO.

My frustration stemmed not from the eagerness of this staff member to want to create a culture of philanthropy, rather it was from her belief that she could accomplish this in a silo of 70 parents and 25 teachers.

Your organization is only part of a larger ecosystem. Unless you’re a school on some isolated mountain in the Himalayas, the culture you create for your org is going to be impacted by the greater forces of your community. So try as you might to shape a culture of philanthropy for your donors, their decision to give is not in your hands alone.

One CEO, one director of development, or, even, one entire organization spreading the philanthropic “feel-goods” does not create a culture of philanthropy. You cannot go it alone. Every organized body in your community, every individual, every teacher, rabbi, priest, store owner, police officer, and ice cream truck driver must be feeding the same beast of philanthropy.

It’s not about transparency or governance. It’s everything we are, our behaviors, our relationships, and our interactions with our community and the wider world. To build a culture, we have to inject the underlying motivations of giving into everything we do. Responsibility, empathy, kindness, expansive thinking, selflessness, gratitude. These attributes need to spread like an epidemic and infect everyone in your community. It’s how we treat strangers on the street. How store owners welcome their customers and sponsor local charities. It’s how we recognize the pillars of our community, and show gratitude to volunteers.

I learned this from an interesting trend in one specific city where we (charidy.com) often have campaigns. Every time an organization does a campaign in this city, it’s crazy. The average donation count is greater than any other city in the world. Social engagement is higher. The marketing better. It doesn’t make sense! Some of these organizations are well oiled machines, while others are mom and pop disorganized machines.

Nevertheless, they are all getting the same love and attention. And then it dawned on me. It wasn’t about the specific organization over another organization. It was the people of that community. A community that values incredible kindness. Be it in the synagogue, school, or supermarket, the culture of giving is being nurtured by everyone.

This phenomenon is also apparent at the macro level as well. The US gives more money to charity than all other countries combined. Our country possesses a culture of giving. It is not because of the government, or the private sector, or any one particular set of mores, it’s everyone.

You will not create a culture of philanthropy in your organization. Don’t even try.

What you can do is BE philanthropy. You can lead your people to be an example of the values you want to cultivate and hope that your mailman passes that same kindness to the fireman, who will pass it to his family, until this infection spreads to every cell in your community, and in the world.

Moshe Hecht is a philanthropy futurist and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding program that has helped 1,500 organizations raise over a half billion dollars. Moshe is an accomplished entrepreneur whose passion lies at the intersection of technology and charitable giving. When Moshe is not at the office, he is writing music and enjoying downtime with his wife and three redheaded children. @moshehecht @wearecharidy