It Takes 2 Cultures to Make a Great Nonprofit

It Takes 2 Cultures to Make a Great Nonprofit — and That Can Be Hard!

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If your nonprofit seems to be caught in a constant state of conflict about the very nature of how you do your work, you are not alone.

I know this because when I asked the Moceanic worldwide community what their biggest fundraising challenge is, a lot of them came back with this answer: My colleagues/boss/others don’t understand fundraising and they won’t let me do my job!

This conflict is baked into the structure of almost every nonprofit on the planet.

Hang on, because I’m about to show you why it’s this way. And when you understand the why, you are on your way to finding a solution — one that will keep your fundraising strong, and your organization healthy!

Almost every nonprofit organization in the world is split into two cultures that see things very differently: Program Culture and Fundraising Culture. This is your strength — and yet also the source of your pain and conflict!

This brilliant insight and diagnosis comes from Al Clayton. He shows us how this split is a serious source of conflict, misunderstanding, and a lot of truly bad fundraising.

Let’s look at the two cultures:

Program Culture

These are the people who run the programs that accomplish your organization’s mission. They are generally ethical intellectuals who value complexity and excel at managing it.

In most organizations, they are the founders and the heroes. After all, your organization exists to do what they do! In most organizations, most administrative people are also a part of the Program Culture. They may not be frontline deliverers of your core mission, but they approach their duties and decisions in much the same way.

For program people, professionalism is defined by rational, unemotional thinking. Emotional thinking can lead to sloppy work and bad decisions. They are also good at understanding and managing complexity.

Their “customers” are your beneficiaries — the people the organization helps.

Fundraising Culture

That’s us. Those who bring in the revenue that keep the organization going. In general, they are energetic achievers who value simplicity and clarity. They are good at making complex things easy to understand.

And here’s where the real rub comes in: They also value emotion. They have to, because fundraising is inherently emotional –you’ve got to meet donors’ emotional needs if you want them to give you money. Without that emotional connection, you’ve got nothing! Professionalism for them is defined by the ability to understand and communicate emotions with simplicity.

Their customers are donors.

See the problem? Two different cultures that not only think differently, but think in absolutely opposite ways about the two most important things your organization does — the mission and the way the mission is funded. No wonder there’s conflict!

The two groups don’t “get” each other. In some cases, they have trouble even liking each other.

If you do a good job at fundraising — making it clear, simple, and emotional — you’re doing everything “wrong” in the Program Culture way of thinking. Likewise, the complex, fully rational ways they describe your organization’s core work probably makes you wonder how you can possibly get donors interested.

A common attitude from each group toward the other is something like, Why do they put so much energy into being so wrong?

Here’s where Al Clayton’s analysis of this situation becomes transforming: He tells us that everyone in both groups needs to understand: You need both cultures to succeed as an organization. Simply getting rid of all the members of the “wrong” culture will not solve the problem. Well, it might solve the conflict problem, but it will create a whole new and very much worse problem — widespread, across-the-board ineffectiveness and/or quick financial decline. (Yes, I’ve seen it happen, with either culture being the victims of the purge.)

Many organizations try to solve the problem with compromise.

Compromise is not the solution.

Finding a consensus between the two fundamentally opposite cultures isn’t really possible. Usually it’s not actually compromise at all, but forcing fundraising into Program Culture — crushes effective fundraising. I suspect real compromise would also crush program effectiveness.

Another form of compromise that many organizations attempt is to put some department “between” the two groups to mediate and negotiate the difference — like finance, HR, or Communications. This is always a disaster! It never works.

Why? Because at best it’s just a complicated and expensive form of compromise with the same shortcomings. And at worst (which is more likely), the “between” group, no matter how neutral they are meant to me, really belongs to one culture or the other, so all the compromises are really just crushing the efforts of one of the groups. Neutrality isn’t possible.

There’s only one solution. Leaders must manage the conflict. Turn the problem into a source of organizational strength and energy.

That’s a high order of leadership. It takes high levels of insight, empathy, communication skills, and constant vigilance.

Here are the things leaders can do to reconcile the two cultures:

  • Publicly define the two cultures. Make it an ongoing conversation. Just knowing that you think differently from someone else, and that it’s perfectly okay — that’s a big step toward reconciliation.
  • Seminars that clarify the differences and proclaim the united purpose of the organization. People need to be reminded! Everyone’s natural tendency is to circle the wagons with their own group and defend against (and/or attack) the other culture. It needs to be clear all the time that everyone is on the same team, and that the cultural differences are not only okay, but vital to the success of the organization.
  • Face to face meetings. Lots of them with individuals, where the leader can point out destructive behaviors and attitudes and coach better approaches. It’s management at its finest. It takes a lot of time, but it can be worth it.
  • Telling the stories. Stories of success. Stories of failure. Stories from within the organization and from outside. Telling stories, over and over, will bring about transformation.
  • Going to “Church”. Clayton’s term for meetings aimed at emotionally uniting everyone in the single purpose they share and in valuing the roles and talents of everyone. Houses of worship have this part figured out. Imitate what they do! Ceremony and music are very powerful tools for bringing people together. Just saying!

What does it look like when you succeed at reconciling the two cultures? Something like this:

  • There is a whole-organization focus throughout. Both cultures are valued. “Us vs. Them” is rarely an issue, because each group understands the other.
  • The organization is donor-focused. Both cultures are aware of donors and value them.
  • There is a strong “money = mission” attitude.
  • Most people (in both groups) believe in mission AND in fundraising.

Can you do this at your organization?

You have to. Organizations that are caught in the two-culture conflict trap can’t succeed long-term. As changing conditions make fundraising ever more difficult, the unresolved conflict will destroy more and more otherwise great nonprofits.

Make it a priority to bring your two cultures together. Find out more about Al Clayton at ACA Philanthropy and Fundraising.

We can help you overcome the culture clash and dramatically improve your effectiveness. Find out about Moceanic Coaching+, where our Fundraisingologists with decades of experience in the profession will tackle the problem with you and your leaders!

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7 Comments. Leave new

  • Sean, This is such an important area for charities to understand. As someone who just came back from Scotland having taken Alan’s Great Fundraising Master Class and the Think Double Master Class right before that this is all very fresh in my mind. (As an aside – a huge shout out – two best professional development classes I have ever attended.)

    In this context there are a couple of points I would like to offer as I am a bit concerned that without all of the background context a person reading this may believe that Fundraising is not a part of Mission and that only Programs and Services are.

    Yes – there are two distinct businesses with two primary customers being served – the donor and the beneficiary of services and they are both equally important. The two distinct businesses are governed by one Board yet they both are linked to Mission. One is Mission Delivery (Programs and Services) and the other is Mission Sustainability (Fundraising). I think this is critical to understand. The danger most certainly comes when organizations try to Compromise. Often Compromise sneaks in through misunderstanding and takes the form of “Integrated Marketing and Communications”.

    A large part of the misunderstanding and conflict arises when individuals do not understand the significance of Mission Sustainability and the fact that if your organization must raise the majority of the funds itself to sustain Mission and deliver the programs and services – Fundraising must drive brand not Programs and Services. “We are inspiring people to action not educating them to understand us.” Thus simplicity and emotion for fundraising are critical. Problem and Solution nothing else! Belief is enough! And this is really hard for those in Programs and Services to accept. We as staff are not the audience. Similarly because Fundraising requires emotion to inspire – we need good stories and a “good fundraising story is the truth well told” and on that front Programs and Services staff worry that it is exploitation of their clients. And organizational leadership tend to shift to compromise to appease everyone, when in fact it ultimately leads to mediocrity at best and really is the death of fundrasiing. What is needed to be a great organization is Leadership recognizing and continually ensuring that the organization understands fundraising is the responsibility of the whole organization’s leadership team. There must be professional respect for both Fundraising and Programs and Services and you cannot have the same processes for both sides as they are completely different.

    Having said all of the above – I am grateful to you for sharing this insight with your followers. I simply wanted to point out that Fundraising does indeed have a major role to play with Mission. How the organization behaves dictates the quality of our product. Thus the greatest block to great fundraising is internal conflict, leading to consensus and compromise.

    • “Belief is enough” is a great way to think about what fundraising is about … and why program people struggle with it. Thanks!

      • Jeff, my apology for some reason when I replied I noted Sean and I should have noted you.
        Very bad on my part. You are both very different:)

  • Harvey McKinnon
    March 13, 2020 4:58 am

    Great Post Jeff! and a great comment, Wendy. This is a universal struggle and those who suffer the most are the people (or animals) the organization was created to serve, because there’s a lot less money to help them.

  • Jonathan Krause
    May 14, 2020 3:23 pm

    a couple of thoughts:

    1. it can be useful for FR to explain the science / strategy / rationale about FR to Programs (appealing to their culture). once they see there is a logic in what we do (and evidence that backs it up), it is easier for Programs to accept and support what FR must do
    2. a critical element in securing funding from Governments is demonstrating impact. Prgrams normally do this through numbers and activities – which measure outputs, but not outcomes. with our expertise in gathering people’s stories, we can enable beneficiaries to tell in their own words the impact our work makes on their lives. Programs can use this as ‘proof’ in their reports.
    3. Govt and Instituional donors often require impact stories so they can ‘boast’ – help your Programs team provide them – and do so with the story quality that is the unique skill of fundraisers

  • Barbara Cecil
    March 18, 2021 4:02 am

    Jeff, this is one of the best blog posts I have read in a while. So much of this resonates directly with my experiences at my organization. Yes, there is conflict. Yes, it is effectively managed by leaders contributing to deeper understanding by the warring parties. Yes, the results are amazing. Thank you for putting all of this into words so eloquently. Also, I personally believe that is okay for a person to yell and cry at work if it only happens once or twice a year. It just means you care a lot. More than that, you probably need to consider getting a new job.


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