This qualitative phenomenological study was designed to gain insight into experiences of grit by development officers in higher education as they pursued their goals and processed their disappointments in the course of soliciting major gifts. Three main domains of literature underpinned the research: (a) motivation theory, (b) goal-setting theory, and (c) the grit model. An extensive literature review revealed little is known about how individuals make sense and assign meaning to their experiences of passion and perseverance, and less is known about how development officers in higher education foundations and institutionally-related nonprofit organizations decide how to set and pursue goals and overcome challenges.

Using a purposeful sampling approach with the intent of maximum variation, 18 development officers employed full-time in the United States at research-intensive universities or university-affiliated foundations were selected and interviewed virtually using a semi-structured interview protocol and an observational protocol. A process of thematic analysis followed the data collection and revealed 11 themes that were reported in relation to the research questions and revealed themes related to passion, perseverance, and the role of self-talk in reflecting on overcoming challenges.

From the main themes, five meta-themes that responded to the essence of grit as experienced by development officers in higher education are discussed. This study enhanced what is known about how development officers assign meaning to their roles and navigate motivation and goal-setting activities. Further, it contributed to the theory and research of grit and how it manifests for people within a particular occupational context.

Specific implications are made for development officers as individuals, for HRD professionals in higher education foundations, HRD professionals in nonprofit organizations generally, and HRD professionals in for-profit enterprises. Recommendations are suggested for future research to test new constructs involved in the experience of grit and for understanding the function of grit within organizational contexts.

Date of publication

Summer 6-27-2018

Document Type




Persistent identifier


Committee members

Jerry W. Gilley, Judy Yi Sun, Ann Gilley


Doctor of Philosophy in Human Resources Development