How Do We Create a “Culture of Philanthropy” At Our Schools?

by Barbara Barron | Posted June 13th, 2018

Quick note from Barbara: So excited to share this work, which is a collection of advice from many trusted friends and collaborators. For those of you who came here by word of mouth, the fastest way to get the “Culture of Philanthropy” PDFs are by signing up for my mailing list. By doing so, you will automatically be sent to the download links, which you can use and share widely. Thank you!

The “culture of philanthropy” question is a very common one to be asked when a school is undergoing the process of accreditation or re-accreditation. But it’s a valuable subject to engage with regardless of where a school is in its accreditation cycle. It effectively boils down to three questions:

  1. Does your school have a culture of philanthropy?
  2. How does your school measure philanthropic success?
  3. How does your school adjust your philanthropic strategy?

So let’s take these one at a time.

Does your school have a culture of philanthropy?

Well, yes. Of course we do!

Seeing as how you can’t just answer in the affirmative – shucks! – perhaps this question is better phrased as, “How do you define your school’s culture of philanthropy?”

Ah, yes. That makes more sense. What we are trying to understand is: what about our definition of philanthropy overlaps with a generally accepted concept of philanthropy. After all, no two schools are the same, and therefore no two advancement programs are identical.

But surely we can agree on what a culture of philanthropy means, right?

Of course, we can. And here’s a fantastic answer to that question, boiled down:

‘Yes. At our school, we believe a “culture of philanthropy” is a “culture of giving.” Which is why, at our school, the work done to raise money to support our mission is done in the light of day.’

Simple, but that’s basically the first box that needs to be checked. If you take anything from that answer, let it be the last five words: “done in the light of day.”

Why is this important? It’s an assurance. And it firmly establishes advancement in its proper, central role in the business of our schools and the advancing of our missions.

For a school with a healthy culture of philanthropy, fundraising is not a dirty word. The development office is not hidden away in the bowels of the school. And philanthropy is everyone’s work, not just the work of a few.

It’s visible. It’s professional. It’s even, dare I suggest, joyful.

What does that really look like at your school? It’s vital that you are able to articulate your own true answer. But now that you know the question that is living behind the question and can craft your response accordingly.

Let’s move on to the second question.

How does your school measure philanthropic success?

Another question with a question beneath it.

Would we, as a school, consider ourselves philanthropically successful if we simply met our financial goals 100% of the time?

Well, no. See, that’s only part of the answer.

What this question is trying to trick you into thinking is that philanthropy is about a monetary end goal. When, in fact, you will never “have enough money” to cover everything your school needs. You will never reach the fabled land of solubility. And anyone who has been in the game long enough knows that that’s not what it’s about.

So what is it about, then?

It’s about your methodology.

Because you can absolutely have a school out there that meets its goals 100% of the time but crushes the souls of every person who comes into contact with it. In fact, you might have worked for one of them.

But that’s not what we want, is it? We want to create – say it with me, now – a “culture of philanthropy.” So this question now becomes:

How does your school responsibly raise money?

Ah, there it is. It comes down to, “How do you do it?!”


We want to understand what we truly consider a philanthropic win and the actions you take every day to work towards them. Specifically? How does your school make everyone (faculty, parents, administration, and most especially trustees) aware of all the small ways they can be part of creating a culture where support is valued.

How does your school educate its community about the roles they can play to build an atmosphere where the cultivation of support is possible? Likely. Inevitable!

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So let’s look at a possible template for your response. Something to work from.

At our school, we consider “philanthropic success” to be the checking off of four boxes:

1. A meaningful relationship with a donor that is mutually beneficial and rewarding, and begins the moment the donor first steps foot on campus.

2. A transparent and open-hearted conversation with a donor that continues throughout their child’s tenure at our school, and beyond, resulting in many gifts to our school, all joyfully made, regardless of size.

3. An educated donor base that, if asked, could name the specific ways in which their collective giving has transformed our school and set us up for future philanthropic success.

4. An administrative team and trustee base that, if asked, could also name the specific ways in which donors have collectively provided resources for our school and set us up for those future philanthropic triumphs.

…at which point you should be able to articulate the specific strategies that your school utilizes that meet all four of these objectives.

Here’s something interesting: did you notice how all four of these “boxes” are about a methodology of cultivating relationships that guarantees responsible stewardship?

That’s important.

Because if your answer to this question is all nuts and bolts, without guiding principles, then you do run the risk of seeming like you’re not working from a responsible ethos.

And, on the other side, if you answer all from ethos, then you run the risk of seeming like you have no actual best practices.

Tricky, tricky — isn’t it?

Let’s take a look at the last question.How does your school adjust your philanthropic strategy?

Or, in other words, “Who at your school calls the shots? And how do those decisions get made?”

This is a big one. Because the culture at a school is ultimately dictated by the power structure that exists within it.

In other words, if you work at a school with a diminished or relegated advancement program, odds are pretty good that your “culture of philanthropy” is almost purely aspirational, right?


Instead, and this is a pretty seismic shift: You need to be an institution where the perspective of the advancement program is sought and considered before any major decisions are made.

These decisions include, but are not limited to:

  • programmatic changes
  • capital campaigns
  • the succession planning and transition of top leaders.

Why? Because the advancement program is hard-wired into the community in a way that no other aspect of a school is.

And – this is going to blow your mind, but… here goes…

Culture is the same thing as community.

That’s right. The development office staff often has intel about our families that no one else has. The development office staff, when well-positioned, can help communicate and persuade in a way that no one else can. The development office staff close an essential feedback loop between the school and community that it serves.

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Without the advancement team weighing on all major decisions and being notified of the small ones, our schools are working without all the information and – most important – potentially without the support of our constituencies.

In other words, without our advancement team seated at the table with the Head of School and its volunteer leaders, we can not say we have a “culture of philanthropy.”

We simply can’t.

So, how does this look on our primer? Well, it probably starts like this:

“At our school, philanthropic goals are set by the Board; philanthropic strategy is developed and implemented by the Head of School and the advancement program. We meet regularly to discuss and respond to issues related to our community. We work collaboratively to meet goals we made, together…”

From there, you’re talking about specific instances in which you, the advancement professionals, collaborated with the powers-that-be to make well-informed, thoughtful decisions that took into account the four necessary qualifiers for “philanthropic success.”

See how it all comes together to create the fabled culture of philanthropy?

So maybe at this point you have more questions than answers. That’s okay. Maybe you’re realizing that the culture of philanthropy that you need to be able to define for your self-study process  — or simply because you understand you need it  — doesn’t exist quite yet at your school.

That’s okay.

You may be earlier in the process than you thought. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let me be here to help you out.

I’ve created three handy downloadable primers that you can print out and bring to your next meeting. You can get them by subscribing to my newsletter.

These “primers”, like this article, are meant to be conversation starters. They should serve as a valuable jumping off spot, from which you and your team can develop a comprehensive list that truly reflects the uniqueness of your school.

All I ask is that whatever amazing ideas you come up with, share them with me!

My name is Barbara Barron, and I’m writing this blog to share advice on a profession that I adore.

I’ve been working in the field of Independent School Advancement for nearly 20 years. In that time, I’ve had the pleasure of creating and implementing successful Strategic Fundraising Plans for so many incredible schools. I’ve had the privilege of seeing real growth at The Carey School, Marin Primary & Middle School, Woodside Priory, Crystal SpringsPresidio Knolls and others. (Maybe we’ve met!)

Nothing makes me happier than seeing a struggling school start to thrive. My hope is that you’re here to make a positive change as well. I hope my advice can be a part of that change.

Shoot me an e-mail if you want to swap tips, or share your voice here.

Let’s do this, together.