May 2018: Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Model–Uses and Limitations in Fundraising

By Amelia Aldred


Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model is a framework for enhancing cross-cultural communication, developed by social psychologist Geert Hofstede. The model describes cultural values of different societies, and how these values relate to members’ behavior. A quick primer on Hofstede’s model can be found on the webpage of Hofstede Insights. (Hofstede Insights, n.d.)

Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model has been embraced by many management professionals as a way of understanding cultural differences and has also been used by social psychologist, economists, and other social scientists as a method of categorizing cultural beliefs and behaviors.  In recent years, scholars and practitioners of philanthropy have also begun using Dr. Hofstede’s theories for training and field experiments.  For example, at the 2017 Science of Philanthropy Conference, Dr. Jeffrey Butler, a behavioral economist at the University of California, Merced, presented his research on how cultural identity may influence philanthropic behavior and used Hofstede’s model for mapping beliefs and behaviors to cultural identity. (Butler 2013)  Similarly, at the 2016 APRA International Prospect Development Conference  Jon W. Garrow, a fundraiser at Montefiore Health System, presented Hofstede’s model as a framework for cultivating and soliciting prospects outside of the United States. (Garrow 2016)

As more nonprofits develop international fundraising programs, it is important to understand the strengths and limitations of Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions model when engaging with donors.

How was the model developed?

From 1967 through 1978 Geert Hofstede disseminated 116,000 questionnaires to IBM employees across the globe.  Over 60,000 employees responded from over 50 countries and Dr. Hofstede spent several years analyzing the responses to his questionnaires.   From this data, he identified four bipolar dimensions (Power Distance; Individualism/Collectivism; Uncertainty Avoidance; Masculinity/Feminity), which became the basis of his characterizations of culture for each country.  (Jones 2007)

A subsequent study conducted by Hofstede and Bond introduced a fifth element ‘Confucian Dynamism’ or ‘Long/Short Term Orientation’, which was an attempt to fit the uncertainty avoidance dimension into the Asian culture.  (Jones 2007) In 1991 Dr. Hofstede published his book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind which detailed his research.  In 2001, Dr. Hofstede published the second edition of Culture’s Consequences and in 2010, he published the third edition of Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind with Gert Jan Hofstede (Geert Hofstede’s son and a population biologist) and Michael Minkov as co-authors.

Strengths of Hofstede’s model

Hofstede’s model is a useful tool for reflecting on one’s own assumptions of what is “normal” and “laudable.” Fundraisers can review their behaviors and expectations using the five dimensions as a lens and this help expand and refine their fundraising practices.  For example, a nonprofit might evaluate their marketing strategy using the Long Term Orientation Vs.  Short term Normative Orientation and realize that they are marketing only the new projects at their organization–which alienates groups of donors who want to support time-honored traditions at the nonprofit.  Changing their communication strategy could help the nonprofit connect with more donors.

Limitations of Hofstede’s model

The primary strength of the model is also its primary weakness: the model’s vast generalization.  Dr. Hofstede himself stated, “We do not compare individuals, but we compare what is called central
tendencies in the answers from each country. There is hardly an individual who answers each question exactly by the mean score of his or her group: the ‘average person’ from a country does not exist.” (Hofstede 1991).

Another limitation of Hofstede’s model lies in the methodology of the original research.  The population surveyed in the original study were all employees of IBM and Dr. Brandon McSweeney at the University of London, Royal Holloway, points out that the data used to construct national cultural comparisons were largely limited to responses from marketing-plus-sales employees (McSweeney 2002).  While some donors and prospects may have similar professional backgrounds as the original respondents, many may not.  Recently, fundraising professionals have begun to explore the effect of different business cultures and professional backgrounds on philanthropic behavior, for example, how do entrepreneurs view philanthropy versus those who have inherited their wealth?

A third limitation of Hofstede’s model is the passage of time since the original research.  Since 1980, the world has experienced major shifts in technology and significant political and cultural movements including the end of the Cold War, the explosion of social media, and countless revolutions and counter-revolutions around the globe.  Although social scientists disagree on the speed and depth of cultural change, very few will argue that culture is completely static and most acknowledge changes in beliefs and behaviors across generations.

For these reasons, it’s important that fundraisers not view Hofstede’s model as a “magic code” for understanding donors, but instead view it in context with a donor’s other qualities, such as regional culture, religious affiliation, generation, professional background, and personal temperament.  Hofstede’s model can be a good place to start when trying to understanding the context in which philanthropic behavior occurs but should be not where the attempt to understand ends.

A hypothetical example:  University Americana in Anytown, U.S.A. wants to expand its fundraising program outside the United States for its new campaign.  Fundraisers use Hofstede’s model as a lens to analyze their current giving opportunities and notice that almost all giving opportunities are individually focused, rather than collectively focused (naming gifts, individual gifts for the annual fund, etc.) The fundraisers work with faculty to create several giving opportunities that leverage groups rather than individuals, such as class gifts, family gifts, affinity group gifts, and corporate sponsorship for events.  The fundraisers make sure to market both individually-focused and group-focused giving opportunities in their new campaign.  In this example, the fundraisers used Hofstede’s model as a tool for expanding the cultural fit of their fundraising campaign but did not assume particular alumni would only be interested in individual or collective gifts.

About the Author:

Amelia Aldred is a lead analyst on the prospect research team at the University of Chicago and the administrator of The Philanthropologist.  Amelia specializes in international and arts fundraising and has taught seminars on international philanthropy, industrial research, and internal communications at CASE (Council for the Advancement and Support of Education)  and APRA (Association of Professional Researchers for Advancement). For more information about Amelia’s nonprofit experience, click here.

Reference List:

Hofstede Insights. n.d. “National Culture” Our Models.  Accessed March 9, 2018.

Butler, Jeffrey. 2017. “The Causal Impact of Cultural Identity on Cooperation” (Conference paper, Science of Philanthropy Conference. Chicago, IL, September 6-7, 2013).

Garrow, Jon W. “International Fundraising: Cultural Intelligence” (Conference presentation, APRA International Prospect Development Conference. Nashville, TN July 27-30, 2016)

Jones, M.L. 2007. “Hofstede-Culturally questionable?” Oxford (Conference paper, Oxford Business & Economics Conference. Oxford, UK, June 24-26, 2007).

Hofstede, Geert. Cultures and organizations: Software of the mind. (London: McGraw-Hill,
1991), 253.

McSweeney, Brandon, “Hofstede’s model of national cultural differences and their consequences: A triumph of faith-a failure of analysis,” Human Relations 55, no.2 (2002): 89-118 2002

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