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By: Chris Fink

It’s quite easy to resist change when considering the enormity of a challenge.

  • “Why bother implementing universal background checks? Bad people will still be able to get guns.”
  • “We can’t just get rid of the counselling program. We’ve been doing that for 50 years!”
  • “I can’t change my entire personality just to get along with ***.”

Sometimes, we have the tendency to get into the “If you can’t fix all of it, right away, what’s the point” mentality. I’ve always struggled with that reasoning, but the folks at Building Movement Project (BMP) presented me with a way to describe an alternative: the 5% shift. BMP suggests that making change doesn’t need to be monumental. So, they’ve put together a series of 5% shifts “that don’t rely on organizations completely changing course and reinventing themselves.”

In a recent Milwaukee workshop, BMP representatives walked participants through an example focusing on client voice and engagement. Attendees considered how involved their constituents are in the activities of their nonprofits. No matter where programs landed on this scale, the task was to think about ways to move them one column right on the scale. For instance, how do you take an activity in which constituents merely attend and are directed at every turn into one where skilled constituents represent their peers? This shift isn’t large, but it is meaningful. It represents a bite size way to improve practice by being more inclusive of direct beneficiaries.

Similarly, Spectrum works with nonprofits on prioritizing strategic options. It’s unwieldy – and likely impossible – to enact fully a shift in strategic direction overnight. Staff and board only have so much capacity. So, we aim to build the capacity of organizations to sequence the implementation of strategic priorities and focus on areas that can have the greatest impact on sustainability overall. We’ve found that prioritizing and focusing actually encourages action as leadership can start somewhere, and build momentum for strategic change over time. These small investments, made deliberately, that engage the entire organization in 5% shifts help increase overall impact and financial viability.

It’s the executive director who abandons review of the newsletter in favor of building relationships with prospective funders. It’s the finance associate who makes an effort to visit the sites where impact is happening. It’s the development person who puts on fewer events in favor of thanking current donors for their gifts. None of these shifts is revolutionary or role re-defining, but in concert with others’ contributions, these changes illustrate the shared responsibility that we have over shifting our organizations toward a sustainability orientation. In other words, a collection of 5% shifts by individuals across the organization can have large ripple effects on the way the nonprofit behaves and performs.

So, what 5% shift can you make today?