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Change the Script: The New Language of Philanthropy

To be successful in philanthropy, we need to be thinking about our donors as partners towards a common goal. Those who support our organizations do so because they believe in the mission and wish to see the organization be successful. They want to be partners with us as those successes are realized and they want to know the impact their support has provided. For donors to feel like our partners, there must be a level of mutual respect that starts in our philanthropy offices with culture, specifically centered on gratitude. Culture is defined by our leaders and shaped by our common language, behaviors and attitudes.


Think about the language your team uses when you talk about philanthropy. Is it rooted in gratitude? Or are you pursuing “low-lying fruit” and “closing gifts” from “major donors?” It’s time to throw out the old vernacular and start using language that will shift your culture to one based on gratitude.


In The Artful Journey, by William T. Sturtevant, we learn valuable tools about building relationships with our donors and how to remember they are humans and not numbers. No one wants to feel as if they have a dollar sign on their forehead when a philanthropy professional talks with them. Instead, we must remember “we are privileged in our business to deal on a daily basis with people who care, who give freely of time and resources in order to achieve something worthwhile for generations yet to come.”¹ It is truly an honor to be associated with these people. It is with this foundation that we can establish and enhance a culture of gratitude.


It’s time to throw out the old vernacular and start using language that will shift your culture to one based on gratitude.

Imagine yourself the donor giving generously to one of your favorite organizations. Once you have given, you feel like an insider, always welcomed warmly when you see your friends in the philanthropy office. You receive timely communications and genuinely feel engaged in valuable conversations with decision makers. How did this meaningful partnership develop? It starts with intentional language that reminds everyone on the philanthropy team that these individuals, our donors, are our generous partners for whom we are grateful. To help accomplish this culture, consider some of these subtle but meaningful shifts to your new language:

  • “Donor” becomes “Philanthropic Partner”

  • “Gift” becomes “Philanthropic Investment”

  • “Solicitation” becomes “Invitation”

  • “Pledge” becomes “Multi-year Philanthropic Investment”

You get the picture. We don’t want our philanthropic partners thinking that we only care

about their money. They need to recognize our authentic desire to welcome them into the

organization as partners making an investment and then treat them like investing partners

throughout the duration of the relationship.


¹ The Artful Journey, William T. Sturtevant, p. 229.


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About the Authors:

Pamela Ronka Maroulis, FAHP, CFRE, is President and Principal Consultant with Accordant, specializing in building relationships and helping donors support their passions. Pam can be reached at Pam@AccordantHealth.com or by connecting through LinkedIn.

Jessica Carswell, CFRE, is a Senior Consultant with Accordant focusing on program assessment, campaign readiness and campaign management. Jessica can be reached at Jessica@AccordantHealth.com or through LinkedIn.

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