Adapting to Disruption: Part One

As part of our professional development initiatives, many of Graham-Pelton’s team members have read Adam Grant’s “Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World.” We have found the book to be a strong testimony to the value of being bold in one’s approach to all aspects of life, including fundraising. In the spirit of boldness, we offer our advice on how to handle various forms of disruption and their impacts in the industry.

In Part one, we’ll discuss bold approaches to major gift fundraising. Part two dives into the bold disruption of technology and those preferences that have formed because of technology’s role in our – and our donors’ – lives.

Know What and Who is Behind Your Donor

David Callahan’s book “The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age” raises many questions about the influence of wealthy donors in today’s world. The Atlantic and The New York Times are among those who point to the book’s review of how mega-philanthropists are shaping national agendas. As The Atlantic article’s author states, when large gifts grow prevalent at a time when government is shrinking, “that can mean that it’s philanthropists who decide what scientific issues are researched, what types of schools exist in communities, and what initiatives get on ballots.” The question arises: who are private donors accountable to in this new world of philanthropic decision-making?

Graham-Pelton’s take: An organization may never fully know where a donor’s wealth comes from, what a donor’s motivations truly are, or how the donor’s behavior may impact the organization once the gift is accepted. But it is incumbent upon the organization to learn as much as possible in its relationship-building efforts about the potential impact of a very visible gift – regardless of size (a “mega” gift at one place may be “a drop in the bucket” at another…). How will your constituencies respond to such support? Is controversy far behind the gift? Is your leadership prepared to take its stand if questioned about a donation? Has the donor been provided with clarification on the expected extent of their involvement (for example, that he/she cannot select his/her scholarship recipient, hire the executive director of the new center he/she has created, or decide on the curriculum for a new program bearing his/her name?) You may think your organization will never face the mega-gift challenge – but isn’t that what every organization seeks to secure?


Reducing Major Gift Portfolios to Get More Gifts?!

New York University recently conducted analysis on its most successful major gifts efforts. “Most successful” is defined as securing gifts closest to the donor’s capacity to give. Those gifts resulted from an average of 11 months of cultivation and five visits. The major gifts that were representative of the smallest proportion of donors’ capacity resulted from six months of cultivation and two asks. The conclusion? It takes time to prepare a prospect for the big gift.

Graham-Pelton’s take: This logic – and the research that Graham-Pelton has conducted – demands that organizations bust the myth that more visit activity from gift officers equals more dollars. Bigger does not necessarily mean better when it comes to gift officer metrics. While a higher visit goal of 175 yields more actual visits than a lower goal of 120 visits, the 175 goal also produces fewer actual solicitations and fewer closes than the 120 visit goal produces. By dramatically reducing portfolio sizes, and eliminating dormant, unqualified, and long-term stewardship prospects, you can empower your gift officers to focus on activity on key prospects, generating more meaningful relationships and gift commitments.


Disruption in the Flesh

Line up a large gift with supposed power behind it against those feeling overpowered by the gift, and you have the making of a potential uprising. At one private U.S. university, the Faculty Senate is preparing to demand more faculty oversight of gift agreement policies and the public disclosure of the names of all the university’s institutes’ donors. Why? Because the chief source of funding behind one of the university’s institutes is from a foundation that promotes libertarianism and faith in the free market. Faculty allege that a political agenda is behind the gift, potentially endangering academic freedom. Others find this view closer to a conspiracy theory.

Graham-Pelton’s take: We don’t think it corny to say that a development operation is charged with making dreams come true. That is what the fulfillment of nonprofit missions is all about and what fundraising professionals seek to achieve. In an effort to do that, bold asks and big gifts are a likely result when compelling cases for support are made. However, with that comes the possibility that the gift intentions will be questioned. Before you pursue that transformational gift with courage and confidence, be sure you have vetted the pros and cons of gift acceptance with your organizational leaders. You want to avoid the backpedaling that may result otherwise.

When navigating different types of disruption, remember to stay alert and bold in your approach. Be acutely aware of the ongoing changes in the philanthropic environment and stay up to date with them. When new disruptions arise, do not be afraid of the change these present, but instead embrace it. Be ready to think on your feet and outside of the box to make every disruption an opportunity for positive institutional – and personal – growth.

Pat House, Ed. D., is Senior Vice President of Client and Consultant Development.

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