Advice for Prospect Development in the Face of Economic Uncertainty


A Q&A With Karen L. Greene, Senior Consultant at Marts & Lundy

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Editor's Note: This article is featured in Best of Connections 2020. Read Apra Editorial Advisory Committee Chair Jessica Balsam's editor's message to learn more about the top articles of the year. 


Among its many impacts, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a wave of economic uncertainty and job insecurity across many industries. For many prospect development professionals and their respective shops, this is undoubtedly a challenging time.

 To gain some tenured insight, we spoke with Karen L. Greene, senior consultant at Marts & Lundy and former Apra board member. In this interview, she shares her perspective on the current climate, how she navigated the Great Recession of 2008 while working at a large public university foundation, advice for what shops can do now, and more.

Those working in prospect development are feeling job insecurity at this time, especially working for nonprofits and trying to fundraise in an economic downturn. How can teams maintain morale while still addressing the very real difficulty of the current situation?

The impact of COVID-19 is more than a financial one. It is also one of personal health. This presents two very serious realities that each of us must face and decide how we want to respond. It is important to remember that balancing personal wellbeing and professional success is not a new challenge, but the current reality is one that none of us have experienced. Keeping perspective is critical during times of crisis.

That translates into the following strategies:

    1. Focus on what can be done.
      • Focusing your efforts on what you can attain will fulfill your sense of purpose and reinforce your ability to do something at a time when it feels like things are out of control.
    2. Give yourself permission to think and act differently.
      • Don’t wait to be invited to something, create opportunities to connect. Keeping in communication with others is more critical than ever. Tools such as video conferencing allow you to stay in touch, both professionally and personally. In times of stress most people’s communications skills diminish, but for others it increases. Connections are important.
    3. Plan for the future — near and far.
      • Having a plan will help you achieve important milestones. While it is something you will need to adjust as conditions change, it will serve as a reminder that conditions aren’t stagnant. In fact, a plan is a powerful tool to monitor progress toward improving conditions.
    4. Remember that in every market — bull or bear, up or down — someone is gaining and someone is losing.
      • During the COVID-19 pandemic, determine who connected to your nonprofit is winning and who is losing. It is important to keep in touch with both groups; send them meaningful messages.
    5. One of the things I learned during the Great Recession of 2008 is that the most talented and highest achieving staff will be the first to leave the organization once things look economically better. They leave for greener pastures.
      • If you are a manager and your organization is financially struggling, this may create an issue for you. Anticipate and overcome this by paying attention to all of your team, and make sure they feel valued and appreciated. These are the qualities that retain staff in good times and bad times.

Many are calling back to the Great Recession of 2008 as a reference point. How long did it take for most nonprofits to recover then? Do you think it will take that long this time around?

I was working and living in Arizona during the 2008 recession at a large public university foundation. Arizona was one of the three most impacted states, along with Nevada and Florida. My university took over $125 million in budget cuts in one calendar year — it was devastating. The foundation worked hard and determined that furloughs would be taken but no one would lose their job. We each took 20 days of unpaid leave that year — one month’s salary was lost. Additionally, property values plummeted to almost 30% of their market value within that same year.

 The financial experts at the time said it would take seven years for the market to recover, and they were right. Properties did not regain their value and become above water for almost seven years. Fundraising slowed; campaigns continued but just went longer, and big gifts were still being given. Studies have shown that those institutions that stopped campaigns during the 2008 recession lost huge amounts of momentum and slowed their ability to fundraise once the economy was stronger. 

As for the future, if you look at the Phoenix area economy at the end of 2019, before the pandemic, it was booming, and lots of building was taking place. The big question now is, “How long will this economic crisis last, and what will be its short-term and long-term impact on the economy?” It is difficult to tell what will happen. McKinsey & Company just released a report about higher education and the future, which plays out several scenarios. Much of what will happen depends on the length of time it takes to create a vaccine and build herd immunity for humans. It took two years to get the Spanish Influenza under control a hundred years ago. Hopefully, with technology and medical advances, it won’t take that long with COVID-19. But we should plan for 12-24 months, and we should plan for what is considered normal to be redefined.

What are some things organizations can do to rebound more quickly?

Keep doing what we do. Philanthropy is still needed and donors still want to support your organization. Relationships with our donors are the most important part of our work, whatever the level of giving. Our organizations need to continue to show our value and the impact we have on making the world a better place. If you have not already done so, use this time to look at how you can be more effective or improve processes and implement those changes.

For organizations that are facing cuts, how do you do so without sacrificing the progress you have made or crippling yourself in the long term?

The economics of the pandemic will result in some organizations going out of existence. Organizational leadership must look at all realities and consider all possibilities. Only by doing this will the organization be able to survive. I had a professional friend a few years ago recommend a number of position eliminations so his social service organization could continue to operate — one of those positions to be eliminated was his own. It is tough work but needed if the organization is to continue.

One idea to consider is the possibility of merging with an organization with a similar or complementary mission. We often use the expression that “a high tide raises all boats.” Use that idea to see how you can help other organizations. Perhaps there is the possibility of leveraging the strengths of both organizations to create an even stronger outcome for all.

What are some ways prospect development professionals that find themselves job searching could translate their work into for-profit jobs if needed?

Because so many fundraisers were laid off during the recession, there were many who went into independent consulting. This is one avenue to take. If you decide to do this, be prepared for the legal work (incorporation, licensing, insurance, etc.) and marketing efforts needed to be self-employed.

Prospect development is a field that lends itself to many possibilities in the for-profit world, such as sales, marketing and research. This has always been the case, not just during this crisis. If a prospect development professional is considering a job change because of the instability of their organization, I would suggest they consider the following:

  •  Do I want to stay in the same type of nonprofit (higher ed, health care, social service) — or am I willing to change the sector? Be willing to look at other organizations and understand what economic risks are present in them. I once worked at a social service nonprofit. Every two weeks, management looked at the budget to see if was balanced or not. It was pretty clear that if it was not, the gap would have to be made up by losing something somewhere in the organization. 

  • Am I tied to staying in this geographic area? Where else should I consider? I moved away from Arizona because there are very few universities and colleges, and because the state was one of the worst hit by the recession. I now live in the DC area where, because of the heavy presence of the federal government, there is some softening of economic impacts. 

  • Can I make myself more recession proof by changing what I do? Should I become a major gifts officer, an annual fund officer or a planned giving officer? Let’s face it, people who ask for gifts are more likely to keep a job or get a job in an economic downturn. Consider doing this for a short time, you may be surprised at how much you enjoy it.

As I mentioned previously, managers should anticipate that high-performing staff are likely to be the first to seek a new position. Be working ahead of time with HR so that you mitigate these losses.

How should prospect development professionals be reevaluating their pipeline? How should organizations adjust goals and metrics?

There has been a lot of discussion on various professional channels about changing the metrics for this year. Trust me when I say metrics are important — but they are a measure, not a goal. Our goal is to connect people with our mission and find a way to engage them with time, talent and treasure.

What are we doing to engage people? This is what we should ask ourselves. Are we connecting with our donors in a meaningful way? Do they know how much we value them and appreciate their generosity? Do they know we care about them? Just this week I received an email from a place where I have been a donor for many years. The email header was “Checking in on you, plus some entertainment!” Inside were things I could watch on YouTube, a quiz, a dance party on their Facebook page and a coloring page for adults. The email ended by saying

 “No matter how you decide to spend your time while social distancing, the most important thing is to take care of yourself and your loved ones.”

This is what matters to your donors. What metric does that fulfill? I will leave that up to you to decide. But when it comes time to make my annual gift, I will remember the email they sent me and what they cared about. Be sure your nonprofit is sending the right message.

Recently, I read an article about how Americans celebrate the dedication to hard work and self-sacrifice. I wonder if the need to focus on metrics is something that makes us feel in control. Or perhaps because so many of us have moved from an in-office work culture to a virtual one, that we need to show we are working and creating value. This will be one of most long-lasting impacts created by the pandemic. The move to a virtual work world with relative ease means the need for offices may become extinct. For an organization to not having building and maintenance costs would be a huge savings. The only thing preventing it from happening before was the management notion that, “If I can’t see them, they must not be working.”

Anything else to add — advice or resources you’ve found helpful in times of professional uncertainty?

Use this time to think about taking a step that you were afraid to take before. Moments of crisis force us to change. Think about what you want out of that change. You can only control what you do and not others. Take advantage of this time.

I received some really great advice many years ago when I was deciding whether to accept my first consulting position. I knew I would be moving from a nonprofit to a for-profit environment. There would be revenue goals to meet. Was I ready to do this? The president of the foundation where I worked told me what had gotten him through a career with Ford Motors. “Always look forward and you will be successful. It’s when you look back that you trip and fall.”

Focus on the future.


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