The Hottest Trend in Economic Development Fundraising

By Rick Kiernan

Convergent Nonprofit Solutions

I’ve been raising money for chambers and economic development organizations for nearly a quarter of a century. For the first 15 years of my fundraising career, those capital campaigns primarily funded new business attraction strategies. Recruit a company to town, and new jobs and capital investment follow. Everyone wins.

When the Great Recession hit 10 years ago, we witnessed a shift in how our clients viewed economic development. Yes, new business attraction remained important, but more so, our clients spent more of their time taking care of existing employers. Focusing on BRE ensured those companies not only stayed in their communities but also expanded. Similar to new business attraction, this strategy also resulted in new jobs and capital investment.

But something interesting happened about five years ago – communities started running out of skilled workers. In January 2014, more than 4.1 million jobs remained unfilled according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This number has grown every year since, reaching 7.6 million job openings in January 2019. There are now one million more job openings than job seekers, and the problem will get worse before it gets better.

According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States just experienced the seventh straight year the fertility rate has dropped. Coupled with 77 million Baby Boomers in the process of retiring, we’re about to see a workforce crisis in this country like we’ve never seen before.

Creating jobs is great, but until someone fills that position, earns a paycheck, and spends it in the community, what have you accomplished? As a result, the most progressive chambers of commerce and economic development organizations across the country now spend nearly as much time (or more!) on job fulfillment as they do on job creation:

  • The Greater Burlington Partnership in Burlington, IA created “Transforming the Talent Pipeline” in response to their local employers’ workforce needs. We helped the Partnership raise $2 million to fund their strategic plan, which included a five-year goal of decreasing unfilled positions by 25% by 2023 (there are over 1,000 job openings today in Southeast Iowa).
  • The Greenwood Partnership Alliance in Greenwood, SC created the Greenwood Promise to eliminate the financial barriers preventing many students from higher education. We helped the Promise raise $4.6 million for an endowment that enables every student who graduates from public, private, or home school in Greenwood County to earn a certificate, technical diploma, or associates degree from Piedmont Technical College. In just its first year, enrollment from Greenwood County jumped 38% at Piedmont Tech.
  • The NC economic development organizations in Lee, Chatham, and Harnett Counties partnered with Central Carolina Community College to place Career Coaches in every high school in those three counties. Their goal is to help raise awareness of the career and income opportunities that exist with a certificate, technical diploma, or associates degree, and to increase enrollment in Career and College Promise, a dual enrollment program that allows students to earn college credit from courses that count simultaneously toward their high school diploma.

These are but three of numerous innovative strategies our clients are developing and deploying to address the workforce challenge they’re experiencing. No single solution is the only solution; rather it’s a matter of determining each community’s needs and developing and funding a variety of initiatives to meet those needs.

According to Area Development’s 15th Annual Consultants Survey, the availability of skilled labor continues to be the number one criteria used by site selectors when comparing communities, more important than incentives, available buildings and sites, highway accessibility, and other factors. Those chambers and economic development organizations developing and funding near- and long-term workforce strategies today will win relocations and expansions tomorrow.

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