Last March, like many of you, I was told to decamp from my physical office in Chicago’s downtown Loop and work from home. I don’t function well working from home, there are too many distractions, I see dust everywhere and can’t pass the dirty laundry without itching to put on a load to wash. Also, there’s no one to talk to about work projects, meet for coffee, or check in with concerning a new process.
To top it all a few months into not being in the office changes were made at my organisation which had been impacted, as many organisations were, by the pandemic and my position was eliminated. So not only did I not have colleagues close to hand, I didn’t have the semblance of a workday. It was all a bit of a shock to the system since apart from some months in 2002 after I moved to the US, I had not been unemployed for decades.
Feeling lost during the pandemic
How does a fundraiser, who has even had the opportunity to write a book focused on their chosen career, look for a new job during the biggest health crisis since the flu of 1918?
There were many thoughts going through my head. Luckily, my husband was still gainfully employed so financially we were ‘okay’ for a few months at least. I was immediately reassured that at least with so many people unemployed or with the threat of redundancy hanging over them there wouldn’t be the awkward question of why I didn’t have a job. My main anxiety though was whether there would be suitable jobs available when organisations were freezing their recruitment or actively jettisoning employees, as I had been jettisoned, including streamlining their fundraising teams?
Though different measures were put in place to save jobs in the UK to the US I’d been aware that the charity sectors in both countries were hit hard by the pandemic. Viewing NPC’s monitor of reported redundancies for charities in 2020 (https://www.thinknpc.org/resource-hub/covid-19-charity-redundancies-monitor/) is certainly a sobering experience and reflects difficulties for all types of non-profits from arts and culture organisations to health and education.
Keeping in touch is key
I began talking to friends and former colleagues who still had jobs. One thing I had gone out of my way to do when employed was to be open to meeting up with anyone who contacted me needing advice or a friendly ear. This policy bore fruit and most of the people I approached were happy to chat and make suggestions. Some were willing to consider me for vacant positions too. In addition, I regularly viewed non-profit related job websites and signed up for email alerts from them notifying me when new jobs were posted.
It appeared that there were opportunities around, both in Chicago but also some in other parts of the US that were advertised as ‘remote working’ being a possibility. This has been another recent trend accelerated during the pandemic of not necessarily requiring staff to physically be close to a particular office location.
My decision was that I would only apply for jobs in which I could show a genuine interest. However, for at least one of my interviews I was surprised that this employer didn’t appear particularly engaged and interested in talking to me. Not unfriendly but not very approachable either, this gave me pause and made me consider whether this sort of work culture was one that appealed to me.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Taking everything into account I was very lucky in my search and started work at my current organisation, returning to higher education fundraising, after two and a half months of unemployment. I even had some other irons in the fire when I got the offer. This was very different from the experience of some non-fundraisers I knew searching for jobs in the more buoyant market of 2019, with one person looking for 10 months before finally finding something.
What did I learn? That though no one is ‘safe’ and bad situations happen, there are professions and abilities that retain their value. Fundraising isn’t rocket science, but it does need skills that are useful to cultivate in and for all areas of work, including resilience, adaptability, sincerity, and the ability to collaborate and build relationships.
Losing my job was difficult but not the end of the world, I have a new organisation to learn about and for which to raise funds. We all get a new day we just need to figure out how it starts.
About Nina Botting Herbst
Nina is Director Of Development at DePaul University, Chicago and lead author of the seventh edition of The Complete Fundraising Handbook.