What more than 30 years as an Executive Director has taught me about building trust and managing through times of challenge and transition.
by Crystel Anders
In my 30+ years as an Executive Director, I have learned that change is the only constant. Further, the ability to manage change due to forces beyond our control and advance change positively within our organizations is critical to mission impact and organizational success. In my time leading nonprofit organizations, I’ve seen policies change, funding sources disappear, and new opportunities manifest in the unlikeliest of places.
Nonprofits will be most successful in their current environment when they operate strategically every day. To do so, they must be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities that align with their mission and also to evaluate, modify, or abandon activities that no longer serve the mission effectively. Changes in the funding landscape, community needs, new hires, and board leadership are just a few of the ways organizations must continually adapt and respond. These activities require leaders to manage change and create deep engagement in their organizations.
The single most important factor in creating deep engagement is to build trust across the organization. Although leaders may not be able to build a 1:1 trust with each staff member and stakeholder, leaders can build an organization that operates on a foundation of trust. When Executive Directors embrace “trust building” as their responsibility and value its positive impact on strategy, they will see the organization shift to a culture where trust thrives. Below are a few key concepts I’ve gleaned from my time in the field around managing change.
With greater trust, comes greater capacity for taking measured risk.
Because organizations bring together a wide variety of stakeholders in various roles, it is important to expand the organization’s willingness to engage in measured risk by connecting deeply with employees, board members, community supporters, and others. Leaders can deepen their interactions through regular meetings where they listen to understand. This level of listening gives Executive Directors the chance to learn about stakeholder concerns, fears, and what they deem to be critically important about the organization. It also provides the opportunity to see where there is common good and where there is difference within an organization. This “organizational perspective” is essential when considering change.
Ultimately, deeper connections allow leaders to build personalized commitment to the organization and to be sure the right people are in place – a foundation of trust can be developed that allows individuals to be more open to taking risks and embracing rather than resisting change.
Engagement takes time, but it is fundamental to managing change.
In the busy day-to-day work of leading an organization, the default is to report on progress and issues rather than practice two-way communication and seek input. But I have found many opportunities to engage in the every day with staff and board members by asking questions, gathering concerns, and requesting feedback. People are more likely to support change when they are part of the process, when their ideas are valued, and concerns are addressed. Engaging in regular dialogue values all perspectives which then increases commitment and decreases resistance. Strategies for dialogue include:
- Being deliberate about scheduling regular meetings with staff, board, and donors. These practices provide more information about potential obstacles and opportunities both within and outside the organization;
- Seeking input on new projects or new directions from the start and identifying key individuals who need to be involved in specific processes can prevent opposition on the back-end and increase healthy dialogue on the front-end;
- Making time to listen carefully;
- Encouraging everyone in the organization to share ideas and be part of creating change.
Although two-way communication takes more time by creating an environment where individuals are heard, leaders build trust and increase the engagement within the organization.
Critical thinking supports organizational change.
An important step toward creating strategic organizations is building critical thinking and that is most readily developed by engaging employees, board members, and others in decision-making. A few key ways to expand decision-making include:
- Seeking input and opinions from staff and board on current processes and practices;
- Encouraging and supporting staff and board to assume leadership roles, taking initiative, sharing new thinking, and creating better systems;
- Acknowledging good work and contributions publicly;
- Emphasizing the value of evaluation on all programs;
- Insisting on analysis of new projects;
- Using a team approach,s haring the power; and
- Being open to experimentation.
These activities increase participation and more importantly provide leaders with creative input and contributions for solving complex issues. It is through both shared successes and understanding failure that the people within organizations can trust that change leads to growth.
Trust supports the strategic orientation nonprofits need to be effective and increase their impact. By using all the power in the room and practicing transparency, leaders create an environment where trust will thrive and organizations will succeed in a changing world.
Crystel Anders, MSSW, is a Consultant with Spectrum Nonprofit Services where she provides consulting and training for community-based organizations around impact and impact strategy. Crystel has over 25 years of experience in organizational planning, fund development, staff training and development, strategic planning and board management. Crystel has held executive positions in multiple organizations, most recently as the Executive Director of Community Shares of Wisconsin, a grassroots fundraising organization that provides funding and technical assistance to over 66 member nonprofits. Crystel has provided training for funding coalitions in multiple states and has also led strategic planning for a number of organizations in Wisconsin.