Does your institution struggle to create a “culture of generosity”— one that elevates philanthropy beyond a mere means to pay the bills to instead become a platform for a gracious and inclusive community? As we’ve discussed the concept of a culture of generosity within the Ph.D. Program in African American Preaching and Sacred Rhetoric at Christian Theological Seminary, we’ve expressed it in this way: To shape a culture of generosity is to cast a vision of generously giving and graciously receiving so great in scope and spirit that all may thrive in an environment where the essence of everyone matters. A culture of generosity is an environment where relationship, connection, and transformation are critical to the how and why of operations.
Here are some building blocks that we found can foster a culture of generosity:
1. Spiritual practice. Generosity is anchored in response to the generosity we have witnessed and received. For people of faith, this core value is directly tied to beliefs about God and a theology of giving. In theological education the sacred practices, including giving, are essential rituals of faith.
2. Hospitality. Everyone should take responsibility for greeting, engaging, and following up with guests. Gratitude and warmth are signature practices not to be reserved to development staff only, nor delegated.
3. Appreciation. Expressing gratitude is, of course, important — and faculty, staff, alumni, and students can all play a part. For example, students can write notes and trustees can call donors to say “thank you.” Sincere appreciation should be expressed within the school as well — to colleagues and students, who are giving their time, talent, treasure, and testimony to further the school’s mission.
4. Listening. Donors and alumni should have opportunities not just to give but to talk about what prompts them to be generous — their experiences, their motivations for generosity, their hopes for the future. Donors may say that they want to “give back,” but they also want to know that their gift is going to make a difference. Stories of impact are essential.
5. Lifelong connections. Every new student is a future alumnus, so it’s important to cultivate students as potential donors even before they graduate. Rather than just looking to alumni for financial support, think of alumni as lifelong ambassadors who will continue to learn as they find new avenues of service in the church and the world.
6. Personal touch. Make it easy for people to give in ways that make sense for them. For example, donors today are increasingly comfortable with online giving, but providing a “Give Now” link on the seminary website does not suffice. Websites must be optimized for phone use and development professionals must tailor tools to meet the needs of savvy constituencies. Supporters give when they have a relationship with the school and its leaders. Online appeals have to be personal and effective on multiple platforms. Electronic giving is a tool, but not the motivator for giving.
7. Communicating the mission. A culture of generosity means that the seminary is fulfilling its mission while communicating about that mission to all stakeholders. Informed donors are more likely to give again. And whether or not they give, alumni need to be reminded of the lasting impact of the institution.
Developing a generous culture takes intentional time and effort. New structures or resources may be needed, which requires support from the board, leadership, and top administrators. Also, a culture of generosity should not be static. It involves a daily evolution of how we meet, talk to, and understand the needs of the people with whom we come in contact.
As the spirit of generosity and hospitality grows, each student, employee, alumnus, and board member will feel: “I have a meaningful part in the encounter that people have with our school. I am an ambassador for all we believe in and care about.”
Further reading on faith-filled fundraising
Kitchen Table Giving: Reimagining How Congregations Connect with Their Donors, by William G. Enright (CreateSpace, 2017, 86 pp., $15).
A Spirituality of Fundraising, by Henri Nouwen (Upper Room, 2011, 64 pp., $7).
Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists, by Valaida Fullwood (John F. Blair, 2011, 392 pp.).