The Great Opportunity (Part 1)

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

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By Sally Bryant, BRYANT GROUP

Historians and journalists love to attach the adjective “great” to whatever is going on in the world to mark it as noteworthy and newsworthy. They use it not in a “This is wonderful!” sense but in a “Things are going to be different from now on” kind of way. The Great War, The Great Depression, The Greatest Generation, and the Great Recession really did change things.

We’re living in one of those times right now. In March, The Washington Post commented on a disappointing jobs report with the headline, “It’s not a ‘labor shortage.’ It’s a great reassessment of work in America.” As Kirk mentioned in his letter a few weeks ago, a Texas A&M business professor garnered a lot of attention for tweeting a warning of the coming “Great Resignation.” The popular real estate website Zillow has coined this moment “The Great Reshuffling” to describe how hundreds of thousands of people (many of whom can now work remotely) are relocating, mostly from expensive metro areas to more affordable, smaller cities.

Rather than scoffing at the possible overuse of “great,” I’m going to join in on employing it–but in the opposite way– to describe the positive aspects of the current situation, specifically within the world of institutional advancement. As I talk to advancement leaders in higher education, healthcare, and other nonprofits, and as I visit with my peers in the executive search field, what I see happening right now is nothing short of The Great Opportunity. This is true not just for institutions, and not just for development officers; The Great Opportunity is for the entire field of institutional advancement.

This opportunity is too significant to discuss in just one brief post. So, I am dedicating three BG NewsBites to the topic. In this post (Part I), I will provide some context to The Great Opportunity and briefly show how it benefits development officers. Part II will be posted in the coming weeks and will touch on how The Great Opportunity impacts advancement offices and the institutional advancement field as whole. A few weeks later, Part III will explore the exciting potential impact of recruiting professionals with translatable skills, passions, and experience into the development workforce.

How We Got Here

It has been extremely difficult to find experienced, qualified advancement professionals for at least the past two decades. During that time, the number of development positions has grown exponentially with higher education, healthcare, and large nonprofits aggressively growing the size of their advancement teams, and the number of nonprofit organizations in the US exploding. As the demand for development officers grew, the pipeline simply could not keep up. A big contributor to this was that, until recently, most people didn’t even think about the fact that this is a career choice. You couldn’t earn a college degree that would prepare you for work in philanthropy. Most people “fell into” the profession somehow. Thankfully, this is changing, but there is a lot of catching up to do. Throw in the high turnover rate among early- and mid-career development officers, and you have the recipe for a highly competitive situation.

Like it has done with a lot of things, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issues just mentioned. When faced with uncertainty and strained budgets, many advancement offices cut expenses, downsized, and instituted hiring freezes on many positions. Meanwhile, many development officers left their positions, and those positions were often left unfilled. At the same time, organizations that had been planning or had just begun a major fundraising campaign pressed the “pause button” until they could see how things shook out.

Last year, about this time, I reported on conversations with advancement leaders around the country; in the face of uncertainty, they adapted, pivoted, and took their programs to new heights. And now, we see the results of these courageous leaders…all over the country, institutions ended up having one of their best (if not *the* best) fundraising years ever. The combination of the cumulative difficulties of development staffing and the unexpected success of FY21 has resulted in The Great Opportunity.

The Great Opportunity for Development Professionals

There may have never been a better time to be an experienced development professional with a track record of success who is open to making a change.

  • Many hiring freezes have ended, and advancement offices are looking for quality candidates to fill the backlog of development positions that were vacated during the past 18 months.
  • The “play button” has been pressed on campaign planning and implementation. A major aspect of this is that advancement shops need to scale up their campaign-focused development staff.

The law of supply and demand has resulted in a degree of upward pressure on salaries for some development positions.

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