Through the Lens of Unconventional Wisdom

  • Published October 19, 2022
  • / By Penelepe C. Hunt

Marts&Lundy asked a panel of fundraising leaders to reimagine the future of fundraising through the lens of unconventional wisdom. Jonathan Agree, Vice President of Development, Academic Medicine and UC Health at University of Cincinnati Foundation, Morgan Dudley, Director of Institutional Advancement at Phillips Exeter Academy, and Peter Hayashida, Marts&Lundy Consulting Partner and former Vice Chancellor for Advancement at University of California, Riverside joined us for a lively and thought-provoking webinar. The discussion explored fundraising mainstays like direct mail annual fund appeals, phonathons, and the length of time it takes to cultivate a major gift. As the panelists challenged the long-held conventions of fundraising and discussed the changing nature of donors and philanthropy in general, a recurring theme emerged about the importance of inclusion, diversity, and equity in the field.


Jonathan, Morgan, and Peter touched on aspects of donor engagement and stewardship, donor profiles, and the growing movement toward community-centric fundraising. While the panelists universally acknowledged the low return on investment of annual fund physical appeals, they also recognized the importance of creating strategic, highly segmented mailings to be inclusive of their paper-friendly constituents and to meet their donors where they’re at. For instance, Peter suggested adding a stitch-in envelope to an alumni magazine. Jonathan reminded us that these past years, even older donors have developed a confidence with Zoom and other technologies. Don’t count your older donors out!


While the work of fundraising—relationship-building—continues to be the bedrock of philanthropy, the panelists identified talent development, retention, management, and diversity as some of the biggest changes in the field. There are more women in leadership positions, though Peter notes that in a field that is nearly three-quarters women, only half of CASE institutions report women in leadership roles, and women in advancement still only make 80 cents to the dollar a man makes. Building an inclusive culture, with leaders who know how to lead is critical to retaining talent, maybe even more so than resources and pay. Leaders need to be intentional about recruiting from more diverse applicant pools so that development staff reflect the people our institutions are serving. How are leaders communicating with their staff, learning what their personal professional goals are and facilitating their growth and development as professionals? Getting this right serves not only the employers, but the profession as a whole.


In today’s world where donors are asking tough questions about impact and the value of their investments and expressing an interest in being part of idea-generation processes, fundraisers need to lean into their skills as listeners. Morgan shared that the work of fundraisers is the “beacon of hope” in a world often divided by political and social conflict because fundraisers are able to listen and understand, to be connectors and collaborators across industries. Institutions that are not considering race, equity, inclusion and justice will have difficulty sustaining credibility with constituencies who will say the institutions are out of step with their own lived experiences. Our narratives should reflect and confront our institutions’ histories, the good and the bad. Many donors have been moved by recent events and motivated to change historical patterns. We need to provide them with space to do that by showing them opportunities to invest that align with their values. In fact, not having such opportunities for investment would be leaving money on the table.

Reimagination in Action

As you develop your plans for the coming year, set aside some time with your team to look at each component of your program through the lens of unconventional thinking. Ask these key questions:

  • What value does this component bring to our program?
  • Why do we do this the way we do it?
  • What would happen if we did this in an entirely different way?
  • How well does this align with what our constituents want from their engagement with us?
  • What is something we would like to try for the first time?
  • How will we assess whether new approaches are successful?

With thanks to Associate Consultant Bree Muehlbauer, CFRE, for her contributions to this article.

This reflection will probably confirm that much of what you’re doing is right on track, and that there are ways to freshen your approach to some of the tried-and-true methods you are using. And perhaps it will spark a new idea that will transform your relationships with your supporters!