Seven Lessons from the Great Recession of 2008 that Apply Today

By March 16, 2020April 6th, 2020Industry Trends & Commentary

Nonprofit leaders around the world are huddled virtually trying to assess the impact that COVID-19 will have on their day-to-day operations and how to adapt to ensure the safety of their staff and the people they serve.

Meanwhile, with each passing day, nonprofit leaders are also looking ahead and growing increasingly concerned about the long-term impact this public health crisis will have on the economy – and subsequently, on their abilities to fulfill their missions or their abilities to fundraise.

But consider this: from 2005 through 2010, which contained the most volatile years of the Great Recession, the net decrease in philanthropic dollars was less than 1.5% in current dollars. What may appear counterintuitive, upon closer inspection, is not entirely surprising; after all, as we discuss in this piece, humans are wired to give and our missions do not pause.

So, while we cannot predict what will happen as this unprecedented and unpredictable global situation continues to unfold, Graham-Pelton reflects on our work across a spectrum of clients during similarly tenuous economic times just more than a decade ago to offer seven important lessons:

1. Relationships Are Everything. When nonprofits hit turbulence caused by outside forces, leaders grow naturally concerned that their actions may damage relationships with donors and constituents. Clients that communicated with empathy and confidence during the recession quickly learned that relationships are buoyant and empathy – in the form of philanthropic support – tends to be given in return.

2. Communication Preserves and Strengthens Relationships and Trust. Donors and constituents are always grateful to have their voices heard but even more so during times of crisis. Throughout the campaign planning studies that we conducted in 2009 and 2010, we indeed heard concerns about both the future and the future of fundraising. But we also heard elevated levels of trust and respect that donors and constituents had for nonprofit leaders – trust and respect that converted into active participation and giving.

3. Donors Become More People-Centric in Their Interests. While there may be a tendency to take a step back from asking, nonprofit leaders are acutely aware that the missions of their organizations remain paramount. Donors are acutely aware of this, too. During the 2008 recession, with the heightened need to access social services, healthcare, and scholarships, donors rose to the occasion of funding that access. After all, nonprofit missions continue to be vital (perhaps even more so) to the people served by nonprofits, regardless of what is happening on the S&P.

4. Donors Are Motivated to Solve Problems. Often, gifts are motivated by the very problems created by turbulent times. In 2009, for example, amidst great uncertainty about the economic future, we counseled a client to solicit the most significant gift of the institution’s history to address a massive problem: terrorism.  Convinced that a weakened economy created additional post-9/11 vulnerabilities, the donor agreed to an eight-figure commitment.

5. Campaigns Can Thrive During Turbulent Times. During 2009 and 2010, we saw multiple Graham-Pelton clients launch campaigns while others pulled back. Clients that launched campaigns with confidence and clarity completed on time and over Take one client, who launched a campaign on January 1, 2009: they ended at 22% above goal with unprecedented numbers of major, principal, and planned gifts. On the other hand, clients that decided to pull back from campaigns are still working to catch up today.

6. Planning and Discipline Pay Off. It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of a crisis, and knee-jerk responses are common. However, careful and deliberate planning in even the most turbulent times is not only possible but productive. In partnership with our team, one nonprofit entered a disciplined process of campaign planning and budget expansion that created active buy-in from leadership. As a result, the campaign went on to raise more than double the previous campaign, despite launching the quiet phase during a recession. At its conclusion, we celebrated more than 50 gifts of $1M+.

7. There Are Alternatives to a Campaign with a Capital “C”. A decade ago, many nonprofit leaders asked us, “Do we really need a ‘Campaign’?”  After carefully considering their situations within the context of data and expertise, we counseled some clients to enter a less visible major gifts initiative that cultivated and solicited their top prospects who understood their acute needs. This is a time for creativity, and all options should be considered when it comes to reaching funding objectives.

From a global health crisis to volatile market fluctuations to the impending US election, there is much that is uncertain. But this much we do know: Americans remain philanthropic even – especially – during times of great uncertainty. We know this both from data and our own experience. It is with empathy, confidence, and optimism that we encourage you to move forward with these same attributes. We’ll be with you every step of the way.

Elizabeth Zeigler is the President & CEO of Graham-Pelton and can be reached at 1-800-608-7955 or ezeigler@grahampelton.com.

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