Recently, I attended a board meeting for a great nonprofit organization. Afterward, the CEO confessed that he was “really troubled that we can’t create a culture of philanthropy here. It is just so frustrating.”

    I agreed. But then I had the hard task of telling him how his board agenda was at the root of the issue. The first item on the agenda? A Profit & Loss statement.

    Looking at their “profit and loss sheet,” I noted two items. First, as a not-for-profit, an organization should not technically have “profit.” Second (and more important), I pointed to the revenue items on his P & L statement. It read:


    Does this seem off to anyone else? In essence, what you are telling your board and your staff is that membership (if your organization has members), program fees, and even rental fees, are “earned” revenue, while all the rest is “unearned.”

    Unearned. Does that mean you don’t have to work for it? Makes it sound like “unearned revenue” resources just fly in through the window, doesn’t it?

    “Unearned? Change it to ‘HARD-earned’,” I said. Philanthropy takes a plan, a compelling case for support, prospective donors, and great execution. That’s hard–earned in my book. Of course, “Contributed Revenue” works just as well. But the point is, words matter.

    So does prioritization. The final item on the Board Meeting agenda was, you guessed it, the Annual Campaign. Last on the agenda – right after “Board Social Event.” Board members are packing up, checking out, and looking at their watches. The really important stuff is always first on the agenda, right? So even the placement on the Board agenda sent an all too clear message to those in attendance. The Annual Campaign is not a priority.

    These may seem like ticky-tacky things. But in creating culture, it is the ticky-tacky items that people notice and react to. If culture isn’t consistent, volunteers and staff will quickly notice.

    Ask yourself, why does every Starbucks employee greet you with a smile and a nod? Because they are trained to do so. Why do Staples’ employees greet you with a “hello” as you enter the front door? Just to be annoying? Nope, it’s their culture. “We are here to help you.” “We are here to serve you.” That’s the message those two companies want to send to everyone walking through their doors.

    So back to your nonprofit. What is the message you want your organization to send to those you serve? Is philanthropy ever really “unearned?” And where does it fit within your priorities?

    I know. I’m being ticky-tacky. But are you?

    Posted by Danny Maier on Jun. 22, 2015
    Danny Maier

    Written by Danny Maier

    Dan Maier offers fundraising counsel and strategic management for local and national nonprofits, YMCAs, camps, medical and social service organizations. He offers invaluable support to clients and their volunteer leadership as they look to enhance their development campaigns, prepare for crisis communications, strengthen their boards and more.

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