Kimberley MacKenzie discusses organizational culture

Episode aired July 22, 2020: Change the culture

Kimberley MacKenzie of Kimberley MacKenzie and Associates says that changing the organizational culture starts from the very top. That means modeling certain behaviors and creating a culture of philanthropy where everyone is onboard with the mission. In this episode Kimberley discusses

  • 4 organizational characteristics successful nonprofits possess
  • the greatest challenge for a fundraiser
  • what a CEO can do to promote a positive atmosphere
  • how to go from survive to thrive and
  • why are we pulling babies out of the river?!

Below you can listen, watch or read this podcast episode.


Ephraim: Welcome to this edition of the Your Weekly Dose of Nonprofit Podcast,  the podcast that delivers actionable items you can implement at your  organization right away. I’m your host Ephraim Gopin of 1832  communications. Today I’m really happy to have with us  one of the nonprofit sectors top smarties,  Kimberley MacKenzie. Kimberley, how you doing today?

Kimberley: I’m great Ephraim. How are you?

Ephraim: I’m doing good.  Let’s introduce you to our listeners, watchers and readers.

People describe Kimberley as provocative, bold, inspiring, edgy and a truth teller.  Kimberly won’t hold back- she believes when we name a problem, we can tackle that problem- especially when it comes to fundraising. An award-winning fundraiser, certified fundraising executive and AFP international master trainer, Kimberley works as a coach to help people advance a culture of philanthropy and create transformative results for their organizations. A sought-after facilitator, speaker and trainer, Kimberley has been in the charitable trenches since 2001. Besides being a driving force in the early days of, she’s also served as editor for Hillborn- Canada’s e-news, was a member of the advisory panel for the Rogare Think Tank at Plymouth University and an executive member of the Planned Giving Council of Simcoe County. Kimberly currently spends most of her time working from her home office in Barrie, Ontario providing coaching and virtually facilitating strategic plans and fundraising strategies for mid-sized organizations.

Greatest Challenge For A Fundraiser

In today’s episode we’re going to discuss organizational culture. So let’s dive right in. Kimberley, what do you think is the greatest challenge for a fundraiser?

Kimberley: Well there’s so many of them, aren’t there? I think at the root of it… our biggest challenge is that our jobs are grossly misunderstood. People just don’t understand what it is that we do and we’re perpetually being asked to keep pulling babies out of the river.

Do you know that classic parable about this little village and somebody in the village discovered a baby was floating down the river, so they went out to get the baby and they brought it in and they fed it and clothed it and took care of this mysterious river baby? And then another baby came and another baby came and all of a sudden the entire village is getting caught up pulling babies out of the river. Finally one smart person says, Hey! Who’s throwing these babies in the river? Let’s go find that out!

I think many many fundraisers are caught up on that hamster wheel of tactics and we haven’t been able to stop that hamster wheel and go upstream and figure out why we’re doing what we’re doing, how we might be able to build stronger relationships with all our constituents internally and externally. I would have to say for the organizations that I have worked with, being able to have the opportunity to do that, to really pause, go upstream, figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing and how to influence change across your spectrum of constituents, can result in stronger, more sustainable fundraising practices. Does that make sense?

The CEO’s Role

Ephraim: Very much so. Excellent. Let’s move to today’s actionable item. Please tell us three things a CEO can do to create a more positive general atmosphere within their organization, as opposed to the uptight we’re always short of money atmosphere.

Kimberley: If I could wave a magic wand and get all charities to stop worrying about money, I would… because that’s one of the things that holds us back the most. So when I think about creating a positive culture and workplace, I think one of the things that a CEO really needs to do is get personal. We have this idea and I don’t know, maybe it came out of the 80s or 90s, that we needed to be professional at all times, right? But we’re human and being human is messy sometimes and we all live messy lives. I think that if the leader in the organization can model that kind of authenticity and accept their own humanity and the humanity of their team, then we can build more authentic, trusting relationships and then we can actually have a better work life balance.

That brings me to the second point: modeling self-care. You know, how many bosses have you had who have sent you an email in the middle of the night and said, I don’t expect you to respond to this. I just had to get it off my chest. Don’t do that! Don’t do that! Because you’re setting the bar so high for the rest of their team and they feel that they need to keep up with that. So modeling a healthy work-life balance can give your team permission to do the same.

And I think also humility, right? It’s okay for the leader to not have all the answers, to go to the team to seek solutions and if we did that, if we led with more humility, then I think being a CEO would be a less lonely position. And it is a very very lonely position actually.

Finally, oh I guess this is four but I have one more. Being results oriented, right? Money isn’t the result. Money is a means to an end. So if we can help our team think that the result we’re striving for is social change and in order to create that social change we just need to raise a little bit of money, that will shift that mindset and help everyone within the organization understand what kind of social investment that they’re making in the world. And that’s much easier to sell.

Build A Culture Of Philanthropy

Ephraim: All four of those, perfect. How do you build a culture of philanthropy within a nonprofit?

Kimberley: Well isn’t that the magic question. I guess I think it starts with this idea of a culture of philanthropy has become a little bit jargony and we need to stop and take some time to think about what is, what does that mean. So again, the organizations that I’ve worked with who have been successful with this have gone upstream and educated the Board on what it is, what a philanthropic culture is and how they can contribute to it and have had conversations with program staff about how can you support the fundraising department. And this doesn’t mean that the fundraising department is the center of the organization. It’s really there to be of service to everybody else. So we need to be really curious about our existing perceptions and mindsets in the organization and then systematically work towards shifting those mindsets.

These conversations are going to be different, depending on whether you’re talking to your board of directors, your program staff, your support staff. But if those of us who are fundraisers and I wish that, I wish we had a different name because it’s so grossly misunderstood as I mentioned before, but if we can start approaching it with humility and seek to understand where other people are coming from within the organization, then we can start where they are.

I had an interesting example once where I was working with doing a team retreat with a fundraising department of a social services agency. We were doing a mind map on their existing programming, to try to figure out where the gaps were and where the growth opportunities were. And the program staff hit this massive roadblock- or the fundraising staff rather- hit a roadblock during the workshop because they realized, in order to do effective transformative fundraising, they needed to be able to tell stories of their beneficiaries but they didn’t have access to the beneficiaries because the program staff wouldn’t let the development team talk to them. So what hitting that roadblock did was… it taught us that we have a trust issue in the organization. We need to work on building trust between the fundraising department and the program staff, so that the program staff understand that we’re not exploiting or manipulating but we’re providing the people who have benefited from the organization an opportunity to tell their story and to give back telling your story. Sharing your story with an organization, that’s a philanthropic act, right? Who are the program staff to decide whether or not beneficiaries have the… are able to do that? So that was an interesting conversation.

I guess another example of that would be at the board level, you know working with boards on doing… You know I do these independent interviews with Board members about their perceptions around philanthropy and should the Board be involved in fundraising. And one client in particular, all of their board members except for one- the chair of the Board- but all of the Board members said no, absolutely not. So I said okay, well tell me about why you care about this organization? What motivated you to get involved with the organization? Would you be willing to make thank you calls to donors? Would you go to go to events with donors? Would you be willing to write notes of thanks and all of these other things? Well yes. They all said that they were willing to do that. So those are philanthropic activities, right? Then in the Board retreat, when I say okay, you all said you don’t want to have anything to do with fundraising but guess what? Ninety percent of the things that we do in fundraising do not involve asking anybody for money! So how about we just do those things for a while and see how it goes and that organization was instantly transformed, in terms of their perceptions and understanding of what it took to do that job.

Like I remember a Board chair a while back said to me, I was a new director of development and I was operating with this old idea of give, get or get off, right? I had asked him, the chair of the board, could you model for me the kind of behavior we want to see with the rest of the board and donate five thousand dollars and ask four of your friends to donate five thousand dollars and we’ll have this little 25 000 campaign? He just said, I’ll never forget it, he said: Kimberley, if I do that, I’m gonna have four of my friends come back and ask me to make a donation to four charities that I don’t care about. I would rather give you the $25,000. For me that was like mind-blowing because it shifts the conversation from let’s just stop twisting arms and let’s change it from the conversation with our Board members who do you know who has money, to who do you know that might care about the work we do and if we do that, then I think we can be more successful. That is a perfect way. I don’t even remember the question. Did I even answer the question? I don’t even remember.

Culture Success

Ephraim: Absolutely, definitely did and I loved the framing there at the end. That was perfect. What three organizational culture characteristics do all or most successful nonprofits possess?

Kimberley: Well, the ones that I have worked with who have been successful, the number one, the key is this: The CEO has to be a champion for the director of fundraising and for fundraising. The CEO needs to get it and if they don’t understand what it takes, I mean, that’s a red flag right there.

When you’re going in for a job, if there’s an assumption that you’re going to bring your contacts with you or you have a secret suitcase full of money that you’re going to be walking in the door with, that’s not conducive to successful fundraising. So helping the CEO be the champion for fundraising, that really really needs to happen. The second thing is the director of development needs to stay in their job for longer than 18 months. We know that you know we have this high turnover rate in the fundraising departments because again, people don’t understand what our job is.

So that’s about managing expectations and it it’s so typical, it goes like this: You get hired. Everybody thinks that you are the magic bullet that is going to solve all of their problems. And so there’s this glorious six months of a honeymoon period rand your job is just to learn as much as you can and then the next six months, you’re kind of spent. Okay i know what we need to do, we’ve got a fundraising plan here, these are some of our priorities. Now I need to get the rest of the organization on board with those. And then you realize you start doing more and more volunteer work with other organizations because your job is so dissatisfying and then you spend six months looking for another job. And when we’re in a world where it takes two years to really get some effective change, I think a successful organization keeps their director of fundraising longer than 18 months. And that’s a massive problem right now.

Maybe the third one is again, everyone in the organization needs to know what they are fundraising for. And that seems so obvious but there are so many organizations who are again fundraising to raise money to pay for the lights. But why do we need those lights?! I was chatting with… I was working with a client to build a legacy program and while interviewing the executive director, he proudly told me that he was going to eliminate HIV and AIDS in five years in this city. And I went oh, that’s cool. Okay, great. But then why would I leave you a gift in my will, because you’re effectively going to solve this problem in five years? So why do we even need to build a legacy program? And this fundamentally… that question fundamentally changed the conversation to gay men’s health in general: mental, physical, spiritual, health and all of the complexities around providing that and that just blew up into a big massive campaign that is going to change the landscape for HIV and AIDS in Toronto. It’s just by simply drilling down into what it is that we need to raise money for, what social problem will this money help address, that it’s pretty simple actually. CEO onboard and a champion director of fundraising staying in their job and know what it is you want to do. Yeah, that’s what I think. Maybe it’s too simple but…

From Survival To Thrival

Ephraim: On your website, you talk about going from survival to thrival, shifting an organization to a success mindset. What does that process entail?

Kimberley: There’s four levels of influence. I think back to… I think back to when I first started doing this and I thought that I was really important, you know, as a director of development. We get all puffed up about that but when I think back to the change, the change over time for the organizations that really are successful, it takes patience and there are four levels of influence, right? People will change their mindset and their behavior if you approach this challenge in four different ways. First of all, we need to model the behavior we’re expecting. So again, that it might seem obvious but I think a lot of fundraisers can be a little bit arrogant. I know I was. I had a great job and in my first few months, I thought the boss needed to get fired because she didn’t know what she was doing. I ended up actually staying there for five years and we’re friends now, we’ve been on holiday together. But you know, that was really arrogant of me in the early days. So if we approach our position, our jobs, from a position of service and really walk in the door sincerely thinking how can I make your life better receptionist, program staff, director of finance, I’m here to serve you, then I think people will start to respond a little bit differently to fundraisers. So first of all, role modeling.

Secondly, telling a compelling story. We not just… we don’t need to tell stories only to our donors but we also need to look at who are our internal influencers and it might be the chair of the Board, it might be the executive director, it might be the receptionist. How can we tell a compelling story about what it takes to be successful at fundraising and get them on board? So once you figure out who your internal influencers are, get them on board, ask for their advice, invite them to be your champions. And they probably will because it’s… it’s a real privilege to be brought into an inner circle of change, right?

So I mean for example, years ago I was an executive director for a conservation organization, biggest inland lake in Ontario and I was building a case for support for a large multi-million dollar campaign. I sat down with the director of science, science and research. I said, Rob, what do you need? What is it that you need more than anything? He said, Kimberley, I am the director of science and research for the largest watershed in Ontario and I don’t have a boat. It’s like, all he needed was a boat, which we got him and he became my biggest champion.

So thirdly in the four levels of influencing change, I think we need to provide necessary skills. We talk a lot to folks about what it takes, how people can contribute to fundraising, but we’re not spending a lot of time training them, you know, if your program staff are out in the field, do they know how to transition the conversations to a call for people to get more meaningfully engaged. Do they know how to just create that shift in the conversation and invite people into the organization through membership or donation or volunteerism. Do they do they know how to do that? If a donor calls the office and wants to make a donation, anybody who picks up the phone should be able to process that donation. That phone call should not be transferred to a voicemail machine. So everybody in the organization needs to have a pledge form in their desk and needs to know how to fill it out and how to thank the donor and have that conversation. It’s simple training. We need to provide those skills, whatever those skills are.

And finally reinforcement. So we talk about board members getting involved in a variety of philanthropic opportunities and you’ll have varied levels of success with that. Some Board members will be keen and they’ll follow up on their commitment and they will help you. So at the next Board meeting, rather than calling out all the people who didn’t do anything, reinforce the people who did and I guarantee you at the end of the meeting, all of those folks who are feeling a little bad about letting you down are going to come and they’ll get onboard and then you can reinforce them. So the public celebrations and reinforcements for the folks who are helping your organization with fundraising success.

Learn More About Kimberley

Ephraim: That is a fantastic answer. Let’s move on to the…

Kimberley: That’s very generous!

Ephraim: Well, these are excellent listen you get to learn from one of the sectors top experts in this area so I’m just listening and I’m just taking it all in. I get to learn too. It’s not just the listeners and people who are listening to the podcast. Let’s move on and learn a little bit more about Kimberley. What got you started on your nonprofit career path?

Kimberley: Breast milk actually. Ephraim: Really? Kimberley: Yeah. I was pregnant and going to a breastfeeding support organization and I got so excited about the work that they were doing and I wanted to become a volunteer leader right away and I was told that I should probably cool my jets and have my baby first. Which I did. I got very involved in that organization as a facilitator and a support worker for young mothers and I just loved it, because I could bring my babies with me. I started doing so much volunteer work that the organization was making money off of it and their executive director said, you know, we should maybe hire you and formalize this. And I went: That would be awesome.

So it was over 20 years ago now. Well my first baby is 24, so 24 years ago. I know it goes by fast but I had the opportunity to work from home, so I didn’t have to leave my kids until I wanted to. They paid me $15 an hour for 15 hours a week and they purchased an AFP membership for me. At the time I described it as twisting the rope as I climbed the mountain. I thought oh we should do direct mail. So then I got Mal Warwick’s direct mail How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters out of an interlibrary loan and Ken Burnett’s relationship fundraising book came to me from some interlibrary loan way up in Thunder Bay. So I just learned as I went along and it was that AFP membership which really set me up for success.

Ephraim: Fantastic. So given all your years in the field, if you could shake up one thing in the nonprofit world, what would it be?

Kimberley: We have too many charities. There are too many charities. We need to set our organizational egos aside and really have a conversation about how can we restructure this sector to create efficiencies and deliver more impact. I have tried to do this. I had one successful joint campaign between my charity and another charity and it’s tough. We were successful and the donors loved it. It didn’t turn out how we thought it would. I was also an interim executive director for an organization that needed to do a massive restructuring due to unsustainable revenue. And the most obvious one was to take all these tiny little charities doing the same work and roll them into one national organization. I spent a lot of time trying to have that conversation but people just- even though their missions were almost exactly the same- could not, just could not make that leap. So I think that while it’s really tough work, I think more mergers, acquisitions and just dissolving charities. Yeah, it might not be a very popular thing to say but I think it’s going to be fundamentally important to the sector.

Ephraim: I will co-sign that. Thing you love most about living in Canada?

Kimberley: I feel safe here. That’s it. I feel safe. We have been attacking 2020 with alignment between different political parties and I just feel like even government leaders who I abhorred in February are being a bully on my behalf to protect me and i just feel that so viscerally. We’re living in challenging times. I’ve never been prouder to be Canadian. I am so so so proud of all of our government officials and the Canadians themselves, who are just doing what we’re told. We’re doing it and it’s working amazing.

Ephraim: If you weren’t working in the nonprofit world, what sector would you be working in?

Kimberley: That’s hard for me to imagine. Possibly social services. Just this idea of getting back to when I fell into this work through my volunteer work and the joy and the boost I got out of facilitating conversations and providing a supportive learning environment for people. I would definitely like to do more of that.

Ephraim: Excellent. You have six step kids. Now I’m one of six kids, so I know how crazy it can get. What’s it like in your house?

Kimberley: I did marry a man who has six children. Yes, he does know how babies are made. I have two of my own children and I could say with 10 in total, it’s pretty dynamic. There’s always a different cohort of people in the house. I think my husband put it best at our wedding when he said that in the life cycle of being a parent, you get a full spectrum of experiences. Learning to ride a bike, getting a driver’s license, breaking up with a romantic relationship, going to university, getting a parking ticket, there’s always some dalliance with drugs, alcohol or tattoos. And that’s us every single day. It’s a pretty dynamic situation for sure but we’re both management consultants, so we have a pretty high capacity for chaos and that’s important. Actually, you know why I first fell in love with Rob? When he had all the kids for March break and he did a brown paper exercise with sticky notes, to map out all the activities and help people know what to expect and help them feel in control and to just come up with our strategy and I thought, that’s a guy that I can get behind. Now the kids love their brown paper exercises!

Ephraim: That’s fantastic. I love that. It’s kind of fun. Alright, let’s turn the table. One surprise question from you for me. I have no clue what you’re gonna ask. Go ahead.

Kimberley: Alright. So I know that you are a proud father of three kids and I am curious about your proudest moments as a father?

Ephraim: Their births. Their birth. I’m not even gonna… There are a lot of proud moments as a dad, but their births are indelibly etched in my brain. I don’t… you know, it’s the Etch a Sketch but then it’s never shaken up and you lose that picture. I still have that image in my head of they’re coming into the world and then holding them that first time. Each one I know exactly what time they were born, I know everything about what went on in there and I have to… it’s just a matter of I wanted to… it was something… it was one of those mental pictures you don’t want to forget.

Now the truth is my daughter is now 20 and in my wallet, I still have a… when you open my wallet, the first picture you’ll see- it’s faded now- but it’s me giving her a kiss a couple minutes after she was born. And it’s a wallet size picture that I keep always. But the other two, my boys, same thing. I remember it all and that stays. Now there are other proud moments and certainly I’ve gotten a chance with my boys because we’re all sports nuts, to celebrate championships of our favorite teams together. Those are always great. Last summer the four of us took a trip up to Toronto together. They had never been, so we drove from New York to Toronto for a week to go touring. That was a lot of fun. We had a great time. Niagara Falls, we went to a baseball game, museums, Hockey Hall of Fame, the whole thing. They got the entire experience. But birth will always… I never want to lose that moment of magic. Yeah, magic. That’s what it is. Just all of a sudden you’re a dad and then you’re dad to one, now you’re a dad to two and then you’re a dad to three. Each one was different, beautiful in its own way but all three stay with me. It’s not going anywhere.

Kimberley: Amazing. It’s amazing how your heart grows, isn’t it? You have one and you think oh I can never, I don’t have any room in my life for another one. What’s gonna happen and then you have another one and your heart just grows a little bit more and makes room for them and yeah, that’s great.

Ephraim: Absolutely. So that would be my proudest moment as a dad. Kimberley, thank you very very much for appearing on the podcast today. You can learn more about Kimberley’s work on her website at and you can connect with her on Twitter @kimberleycanada. Kimberley thank you really a lot. I appreciate it. Have a wonderful day.

Kimberley: It’s my pleasure. Thank you. Great to talk to you.

Ephraim: You too. Have a good one.