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  • Debra A. Gill

Focus on the Big Rocks

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

The ABC’s of prioritization.



Probably the hardest thing to do as a major gift officer is master the art of self-discipline. Inevitably, mornings bring dozens of emails, phone calls, and tasks to be addressed. Factor in meetings, spontaneous conversations, unexpected situations that require your immediate attention, and before long the day is behind you. As you drive home, you find yourself asking “what did I accomplish today?” There is no doubt that many of the boxes were checked on your to do list but often, these are what I call the “B and C” priorities. The question is, did you have meaningful interactions with your major gift donors … your “A” priority.

Many of us approach our day with the intention of clearing the deck of lower priority tasks to create time to focus on major gifts. Time and again, however, the decks stay cluttered or even pick up more clutter throughout the day. The result is that a day, a week, or even a month can go by without truly focusing on the uppermost priority – our donors.


You’ve probably seen the time management demonstration where there are several elements (sand, pebbles, and big rocks) added to a jar. The demo goes that if you put the sand in first you won’t be able to fit everything else in or if you do, the items will spill over and make a mess. Similarly, if you start with the pebbles, you won’t be able to fit the big rocks and sand. The bottom line is that if you start with the small objects, you will never get the big rocks into the jar.

Alternatively, if we change the order in which the items are added to the jar, everything fits. By intentionally putting the big rocks (A) in the jar first, followed by the pebbles (B), and then the sand (C). It all fits, and nothing spills out. The obvious point of this exercise is that ultimately everything gets accomplished, but the real work begins with the big rocks.

While this is a powerful time management illustration, it is distinctly applicable to our approach to philanthropy. Highly successful fundraising professionals put donor engagement ahead of all other priorities on their lists. In other words, they remain focused on the big rocks. As major gift professionals we need to discipline ourselves to spend our time getting the big rocks into the jar first, knowing that the pebbles and sand will be handled when the time is right.


Alliance Philanthropy’s philosophy is to inspire staff, volunteers, and board members for all types of not-for-profit organizations to raise funds enthusiastically and passionately - at maximum levels - in support of their missions.

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