By Steven Zimmerman
In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s weatherman character gets stuck in time, repeating the same day over and over again with Punxsutawney Phil. Buffeted by challenges like a pandemic, worker shortages and inflation in the past three and a half years, many nonprofit leaders might yearn for Groundhog Day if only to face the same environment for a short time. Instead, they face constant change and calls for innovation and transformation.
Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “change is the only constant in life,” but not all change is bad. The pandemic forced many organizations to innovate and think of new ways to serve constituents, and while there is still a long way to go, the national reckoning on racial inequities has fueled overdue reflection and action. All these challenges have made nonprofit leaders examine and change how they accomplish and fund their mission.
And we’re not done yet. The continuation of economic, labor and social pressures along with the end of pandemic relief funding and changing philanthropic giving means more change will be needed for organizations to be sustainable and deliver on their mission.
Shifting an organization’s business model to continually deliver high-impact, equitable programs is hard and takes time. Change management expert John Kotter found that 70% of organizational change management efforts fail.[i] Kotter and others, however, have found key steps organizational leadership can take to greatly increase the odds of success: determine who needs to be on board, support people and the journey, and celebrate small wins.
Determine who needs to be on board.
Kotter writes, “Getting a transformation program started requires the aggressive cooperation of many individuals.”[ii] It would be great if everyone involved with the organization agreed with the change that must happen. It is also unlikely.
Leaders, however, don’t need everyone convinced at the beginning for change to happen. University of Pennsylvania research suggests “the tipping point for change is getting 25% of people in an organization on board. So rather than trying to convince the skeptics from the outset, a much more effective strategy is to identify who are already enthusiastic about the idea and want transformation to succeed,” writes Greg Satell in his article, “To Implement Change, You Don’t need to Convince Everyone at Once.”[iii]
Start the process by identifying the influencers among the board and staff and having detailed one-on-one conversations. This does not mean starting with the solution in mind but communicating the challenge to create a sense of need and urgency in the change. A board and staff task force can seek input and work to co-create a meaningful, impactful and sustainable vision for the future.
Once a vision is created, repeatedly communicating both the need for change and the vision is key. Many leaders tire of delivering the same message, but it takes people hearing the vision multiple times to fully absorb, process and hopefully embrace the desired change.
Successful change efforts aren’t just about communicating the desired result, but also actively engaging others in the process. Once the need and vision have been communicated, provide opportunities for input and ideas to surface. There will always be some who continue to not see the need, but gathering the insights and perspectives of others will surface stronger strategies to accomplishing the vision and strengthening the organization. Recognize that for some this may be a new way of thinking and, again, it will take time to bring them along. Within reason, that time is well worth the effort and the buy-in created will lead to faster implementation, but people need to be supported in the journey.
Support people AND the journey.
Change happens when people are motivated for it to happen. Too much change, however, can be exhausting. 65% of respondents to a corporate survey by PwC said they had “change fatigue”[iv] – and that survey was done in 2014 – well before the pandemic caused monumental cultural shifts.
Listening to, understanding, engaging and supporting employees, volunteers and constituents is essential for change efforts to be successful. Nonprofits, by their nature, are community driven organizations and thrive when people come together to strengthen their communities.
Leaders are often thinking about the organizational need for change but must also recognize the human element and the personal commitment that many may have to how the organization currently operates. Often change initiatives have serious implications for members of the community. These implications shouldn’t become a barrier to making strategic decisions to strengthen impact and sustainability, but they shouldn’t be dismissed. Understand and appreciate the emotional journey that many people will go through as the organization lets go of long-standing programs or ways of carrying out the mission.
Over the past several years there has been an increased focus on self-care – recognizing the stress of change and secondary traumatization that comes from working with constituents who themselves are experiencing trauma. These helpful programs address the stress nonprofit staff feel in their day-to-day activities. They can also be helpful as staff reflect and process the changes the organization and, indeed, our communities are undergoing.
Setting and communicating a clear timeline for change also lets people understand the journey ahead. Even if the path isn’t always clear, acknowledging the uncertainty and creating transparency around the process are important. It is also important to mark and celebrate progress along the way.
Celebrate Small Wins – Even if the Win Is Learning
We often want to think of the pathway to success as a straight line – we can identify the change needed and the action steps to create it, and all that is left to do is implement. But innovative change brings many unknowns, and there will be twists and turns along the way. After all, even if everything is implemented according to plan, the greater environment may change. An economic, political or social disruption might cause the most thought-out strategies to be ineffective.
Large-scale change can be big, daunting and take years to complete. Shifting a nonprofit’s business model may happen over five years. Without marking progress along the way people will lose motivation.
Break the vision down into phases and understand the first steps necessary to proceed. The annual budgeting process provides a natural space to integrate change initiatives into the operations of an organization. Think about what can be accomplished in the next year and build it into the budget and, ultimately, operating plans. In doing so, change initiatives shouldn’t be seen as an “extra” but rather a new way of conducting an organization’s work.
Engaging those who embrace the needed change early on to create tangible wins creates the momentum necessary for even greater change. Satell calls this a keystone change “which allows you to get out of the business of selling an idea and into the business of selling a success.”[v]
Not every step, however, will be a success. Successful change requires allowing failure to happen and learning from the experience. One study found “Creating space for small failures can ultimately lead to big success, whereas fear of any failure can lead to missed opportunities.”[vi] This doesn’t mean we should take failure lightly, but instead change the mindset from failure to learning opportunity. More than treating that as a euphemism, create systems where the team can debrief, collectively learn and understand either what assumptions were wrong, where execution unraveled or how the environment changed, allowing the organization to adjust and refine strategies moving forward. This collective learning creates a strong team that is continually learning and will improve the chances of long-term success.
Leadership for change
As the world changes around us, nonprofit organizations – guided by their mission and intended impact – need to adapt as well. This can be hard for people who are deeply involved with organizations, care about them and depend on their services. There is always a sense of grieving that comes with change as people “long for the old days.” There is also a sense of unease as there is no certainty that any new initiative will work.
Change demands leadership. Leaders must bring people together and celebrate the past while recognizing that what worked before might not work in the future. But above all, leaders must collectively gather momentum and build stronger organizations that will deliver high-impact, equitable and sustainable programming that our communities need and depend on.
Change takes time, but maintaining the status quo has a cost for organizations as well. By deciding who needs to be on board, supporting people and the journey and celebrating small wins – even if the win is learning what won’t work – organizations will be able to embrace our changing world and move forward to meet their mission when it is needed most.
[i] Andrew White, Michael Wheelock, Adam Canwell, and Michael Smets., “6 Key Levers of a Successful Organizational Transformation” Harvard Business Review, May 10, 2023; https://hbr.org/2023/05/6-key-levers-of-a-successful-organizational-transformation [ii] John P. Kotter, “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail” Harvard Business Review; January 2007, https://hbr.org/2007/01/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail [iii] Greg Satell, “To Implement Change, You Don’t Need to Convince Everyone at Once” Harvard Business Review, May 11, 2023; https://hbr.org/2023/05/to-implement-change-you-dont-need-to-convince-everyone-at-once [iv] DeAnne Aguirre, Rutger von Post, and Micah Alpern., “Culture’s Role in Enabling Organizational Change.” Strategy& 2014. https://www.strategyand.pwc.com/gx/en/insights/2011-2014/cultures-role-organizational-change.html [v] Satell, loc. cit. [vi] Ibid.