Senior Advisor Tom Sullivan and a new definition of philanthropy amidst a changing world

By April 1, 2021April 14th, 2021Graham-Pelton News & Events

Tom Sullivan Headshot

Graham-Pelton is pleased to welcome Thomas J. Sullivan as Senior Advisor. A leading expert in comprehensive philanthropy operations, Tom will support a growing base of clients in healthcare and higher education fields. He recently shared his thoughts on the changing perception of philanthropy and who it engages – and the ways to shift the narrative around each.

Has the pandemic changed your perception on philanthropy?

We are in an elevated environment of altruism and humanity, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

People like to talk about the accessibility of philanthropy, its cost-effectiveness, and the power it has to effect meaningful change. And all that is true, but I don’t believe that many people have really focused on the dignity of philanthropy.

Recognizing the grace and virtue associated with philanthropy is critically important in the fabric of society here in the United States and increasingly around the world.  Doing so will help people feel more inclined toward the act of giving – of extending oneself on behalf of others.  If philanthropy is seen as truly a dignified exercise, there is growing evidence that newfound altruism will stimulate people to refocus their priorities…to become more other-directed.

The word “dignity” is not one used very frequently when it comes to philanthropy.

Like all fundraisers, I’ve had interminable discussions with people – board members, faculty, volunteers — who claim they could never ask for money. Of course, the greatest paradox in asking for money is that it’s never about the money. If one thinks about it as asking for money, then defeat, or a less-than-optimal gift, is knocking on the door.

It’s about the cause. It’s about the project. It’s about the initiative. It’s about the research. Ultimately, it’s about the impact!  And yes, the practical element absolutely is that charitable investment is required to create positive change.  The challenge is to ensure that everyone making a request of a prospective donor sees it through that prism.

We must do a better job of communicating to people that philanthropy is a respectable, dignified, selfless, powerful, and positive expression. If people stop and reflect on the compassion and empathy involved, it will likely resonate with them: “Something good, something extraordinary is happening. And I am making things better in important ways.”

You’ve committed your career to not just inspiring prospective donors to be catalysts for change, but your colleagues, too.

It is well known and accepted that traditional revenue sources are under assault and will wax and wane depending on numerous variables, not the least of which are the economy and the shifting political winds. Philanthropy is highly accessible and cost-effective: there are literally billions of dollars out there, as yet untapped. In charitably supported institutions, virtually everyone has a role to play when it comes to philanthropy. At a minimum, everyone, including faculty and staff, must understand the ways that philanthropy drives progress – and will increasingly do so – at these institutions.

That does not imply that everyone plays a direct role in securing philanthropy, but it suggests that everyone in the organization should appreciate the vital role gift support  plays. Philanthropy must occupy a prominent niche on the institutional agenda – like finance, human resources, or admissions.  It must be seen as part of the institutional fabric and should be a topic of discussion at all substantive meetings.  Bottom line…. philanthropy needs to have a seat at the table.

The institutions that commit and organize to pursue philanthropy have the best chance to attract it, which will likely lead to greater prosperity and enhanced fulfillment of organizational objectives.

Speaking of survival and organizations that pursue philanthropy, “go after it,” one of the trends that Graham-Pelton has monitored is the rise of mega-gifts: those 8+ figure gifts that propel goals dramatically forward yet remain in the domain of the few with that capacity.

No question that organizations must resource mega-gift efforts. Willie Sutton said it best when asked why he robbed banks:” “Because that’s where the money is.”  It’s troubling to note that since the Great Recession and even before, individual giving has declined, and the middle-class donor has disappeared or has reoriented their relationship with philanthropy. That has to be viewed as a red flag!.

On the other hand, there is so much great wealth being created that institutions simply cannot ignore that potential source of support. But having all of one’s eggs in a single basket has been proven over the years to be unwise.  A balanced approach would seem to be prudent.

I do think there needs to be a recalibration in terms of recapturing the middle-class or lower-end donor. That has been one heartening element of the pandemic: data has begun to demonstrate that the lower end of the donor spectrum has become much more active than it was for the previous decade. The crisis has brought a lot of people to the table who had been in hibernation.

People who have been on the sidelines or intransigent have become much more engaged. It’s incumbent on us to harness that energy: to counsel our clients that people want to see results. They want to know what change will result if they make investments – and they want and expect transparency if things don’t change quickly or if an organization must course correct. Supporters want to be kept informed but are also willing to be flexible, should a new direction be called for.

You’ve made a significant impact in your career serving premier organizations. What was it that attracted you to join Graham-Pelton?

As a client, I’ve benefited from the counsel and strategy offered by fundraising consultants. One of my advisors was [Graham-Pelton Senior Vice President] Jim Lyddy, who along with [Senior Vice President] Stuart Sullivan introduced the firm to me. The reputation of Graham-Pelton, along with the referral of people I respect greatly, made it an easy decision to continue my career in a way that effects powerful and positive change across society.

A chief strategist and practitioner in implementing multi-faceted fundraising programs, Tom Sullivan held top posts at a number of noted institutions across the country, including the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago; Greater Baltimore Medical Center; MedStar Health; Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (now, Shirley Ryan AbilityLab); University of Maryland, Baltimore; University of Notre Dame; and Washington Hospital Center. Contact Tom directly via email or by calling 1.800.608.7955.

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