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Building a Culture of Philanthropy

Numerous recent studies and articles have pointed out the critical role of philanthropy in communities—not only...

Numerous recent studies and articles have pointed out the critical role of philanthropy in communities—not only in supporting the social sector, but also in creating a culture of civic engagement, caring, and trust. But how do you actually build a culture of philanthropy in a community?

I had been working in the nonprofit sector in New York for years when my husband suddenly received an incredible job opportunity in Las Vegas, Nevada. At the time, I knew nothing of the social sector in Vegas—after all, when you think about Las Vegas, the first thing that comes to mind usually isn’t philanthropy.

We moved, and I soon joined the Moonridge Group, a catalyst organization that connects nonprofits and philanthropy, and facilitates community-wide initiatives. Our work focuses on growing philanthropy, building capacity in nonprofits, and ensuring that we increase collaboration and minimize duplication, particularly in Las Vegas. So far our greatest challenges have been community engagement, and building a culture and a legacy of philanthropy.

Las Vegas is a fascinating example of a big little town. It’s a city that essentially exists because of tourism, yet it’s also a thriving city with 2.2 million residents. It was one of the hardest hit by the recession and real estate bubble—and although the economy has rebounded, there are deep wounds. Like many other cities across the United States, Vegas has deep social needs and a low density of nonprofits. It is highly transient and, due to it’s relative youth, does not have an ingrained culture of philanthropy.

Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about how you can build a culture of philanthropy, and we have refocused our organization as a result. Here’s what we know about what works:

1. Everything begins with engagement.

In communities where there isn't an established culture of board participation and volunteerism, it’s important to start by creating opportunities for fulfilling engagement. One specific thing we did was to create a better pipeline of volunteer leadership. We did this in a few ways. First, we launched a “board matchmaker” tool, which helps pair organizations that need board members with executives who are looking for a way to get involved and give back. We also wanted to make existing philanthropy more strategic and visible. We formed something called the Greater Good Council, which brings together individual and family foundations to engage in strategic, collective impact-like giving. Finally, we began guiding nonprofits toward creating structured volunteer opportunities for individuals and groups, knowing that once someone volunteers, they often develop a vested interest in supporting that organization into the future.

2. Although philanthropy should be strategic, it’s fundamentally personal.

Of course we all want philanthropists to engage in high-impact giving, but when you are starting off trying to build a culture and tradition of philanthropy, it’s most important to inspire people to give. We find that storytelling—sharing personal pathways to giving—works well. We implemented an annual Philanthropy Leaders Summit, where 150 community philanthropists engaged in conversations about how and why they give. We are also starting a video series featuring local leading philanthropists who share what inspires them.

3. You have to reach Millennials directly.

It’s also critical to reach out to and engage the next generation of philanthropists. We helped several nonprofits launch youth philanthropy groups, which focus on volunteering, personal experience, and professional development. We also involve youth in our Philanthropy Leaders Summit.

4. It’s important to help nonprofits better engage with the philanthropy community.

As the tide of philanthropy rises in a community, it’s important to ensure that nonprofits are equipped to accept and effectively steward contributions. We collaborate with other community organizations to create a spectrum of capacity-building services for nonprofits. We also work directly with organizations to develop clear communications with donors (for example, providing information such as “investment updates” to donors so that they can see how organizations are using their funds). We also launched a series of community roundtables to help nonprofits better understand the funding landscape—for example, this fall we will organize a summit with the Nevada Corporate Giving Council (which we helped form) and the Nonprofit CEO Advisory Council (convened by the United Way of Southern Nevada). There are always misconceptions on both sides in terms of funding needs and availability; this is just one step in the direction to better communications and collaboration.

Building a culture and tradition of philanthropy for an entire city is a massive undertaking, but it is vital. Like many communities across the country, Las Vegas has deep social needs, and it is up to all members of the community to help support their neighbors. It’s so inspiring to see a rising tide of national philanthropic efforts (such as the Billionaire’s Pledge)—but it all starts at home, in our communities.

Building a Culture of Philanthropy, September 19, 2014, Stanford Social Innovation Review, by Anna Pikovsky Auerbach

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