By Laura Hutyra, CFRE, Vice President of M. Gale

In today’s world, there are a lot of opinions about culture. It’s become quite the buzz word, and unfortunately some discussions even get ugly. However, one of the silver linings of the Covid pandemic was renewed focus and positive attention to the importance of company culture. Leaders are held accountable to ensure a healthy culture and work environment for many reasons, not the least of which is recruiting and ­­­retaining strong talent.

So, why aren’t more nonprofit leaders asking about internal culture?

For one thing, it’s intimidating. Even though I can argue the impact of culture on mission achievement all day long, the commitment it takes to assess one’s internal culture – let alone change it – seems daunting to many. Culture is complex, so sometimes it may feel easier to address a specific symptom, such as the supposed failure of a development team to meet goals rather than its root cause, which could be a fractured culture that doesn’t embrace the importance of relationships and its connection to organizational success.

Can we address the 10,000-pound elephant in the boardroom?

Board members and leadership executives must come together to address nonprofit culture. Volunteer leaders who serve on boards come in and out of their respective organizations, so a desired culture must be expressed, oriented to, agreed upon and ultimately contributed to by all leadership. Otherwise, an underlying toxic culture could very well become the elephant in the room.

However, important discussions about internal culture are not always easy or straightforward. In fact, if they were, it would probably mean that we were doing them wrong. In truth, the topic of organizational culture must be approached with sensitivity and awareness. The hoped for result is typically a respectful and supportive environment where all employees can thrive. The reality is that it’s impossible to achieve this if the process to get there allows disrespect, exclusivity or discouragement.

After all, nonprofits inherently face their own cultural challenges:

  • While motivation may not be to make a profit, they still exist in a competitive market for funds.
  • Often, their mission work is especially hard, with services covering a wide range of community needs and circumstances.
  • They steward volunteer contributions, donor relationships and dollars.
  • They experience higher than typical staff turnover rates.
  • Unlike for-profit companies who readily invest in marketing and awareness building, nonprofits often embrace a mindset of scarcity, which leads to unrealistic budgeting and high expectations of too few.

Most leaders embrace the idea that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,’ and that unhealthy culture leads to ineffective mission impact. I argue that unhealthy culture for a nonprofit is even worse – because the ones who really miss out are the beneficiaries of important community services. Without healthy and effective nonprofits in our society, where would we be?

With so many dynamics at play, what should nonprofit culture look like?

This is an important question for us to ponder. At M.Gale, I have created new content and taught on the topic of building a culture of philanthropy several times over the last few years because it is such a foundational and critical component to nonprofit success. In fact, organizational culture has become one of the first areas I consider when helping nonprofits and even when meeting prospective clients.

Although culture isn’t the root issue for every nonprofit challenge, it has a big impact on the effectiveness of our work as consultants. Whether we are creating development plan, studying the feasibility of a major capital campaign, coaching a new fundraising team or developing a muti-year strategic plan, assessing an organization’s internal culture is a critical step to inform the best path forward. Understanding the organization’s culture informs us on how effective it will be in successfully implementing its goals.

Why is a culture of philanthropy an answer?

Philanthropy is a term that has so many connotations, but at its root, creates a foundation for the common good. From the root word philanthropia, it literally means love of humankind. It is generally defined as the desire to promote the welfare of others. Therefore, a culture of philanthropy is one in which everyone has a role in promoting and raising resources for an organization – and where relationships and people are valued more than money.

When embraced well, this culture impacts all levels and drastically enhances team morale by providing clearer understanding and collaboration. This greater effectiveness often leads to increased revenue generation.

That said, it’s not always easy to pinpoint where culture and effectiveness (or not) meet. From one organization to the next, the symptoms of a challenging culture may look very different. It’s best to start by exploring the differences between a fundraising culture, for example, and one that embraces philanthropy.

In A Fundraising Culture . . .  In A Culture of Philanthropy . . .
Only development staff are responsible for revenue generation. Everyone in the organization shares some responsibility for revenue generation by serving as ambassadors and building relationships with stakeholders.
It’s all about the money. It’s all about the relationships.
Donors are contacted only when money is needed. Donors are contacted regularly with invitations to become engaged and with updates and information about the impact of their contributions.
Fundraising is seen as a one-off or add-on. Fundraising is incorporated into and across every staff position and activity in the organization.
Culture is seen as “touchy feely.” Culture is the most important factor in determining operational effectiveness.
The Board relegates fundraising to the Development Committee. The Board Development Committee directs the participation of the entire Board in fundraising.
Development goals aren’t part of everyone’s job description. Development goals are part of everyone’s job description.


Who is responsible for internal culture?

People are a nonprofit’s most valuable asset. All the people, including the board, staff, volunteers, donors, partners and program recipients help drive mission impact, so it should go without saying that relationships should be at the heart of what they do.

A culture of philanthropy helps create a foundation to better understand, empower, communicate with, and genuinely engage people. It helps create a respectful and supportive environment for everyone to thrive and contribute to success.

That means that from the top, nonprofit leaders, especially those in the boardroom, have an important responsibility and opportunity to help set or re-set the culture from within their organization. Of course, everyone plays a role, and fundraising professionals have an important one in teaching, leading and collaborating with their team members.

A healthy culture that embraces philanthropy is critically important and a valuable approach to a more sustainable nonprofit future.


As Vice President of M. Gale, Laura helps nonprofit clients throughout Texas and the southwest solve challenges and meet their missions, while leading the team in collaborative projects and operations to grow the company. She is passionate about nonprofit culture and has been selected to teach on the topic at this year’s Dallas-Fort Worth Philanthropy in Action Conference hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Reach out to her at [email protected] to talk more about the topic.