I had a long conversation last week with a notable volunteer in my nonprofit organization about his past experiences across the country. There was a clear underlying theme to everything we discussed; change. No surprise there right? Change is constant (some say the only one) and all organizations experience it. What’s interesting about a large nonprofit organization is how much opposition and adversity there can be to change. The passion that people feel when they have given of themselves to build something is incredibly strong. When what they have helped to build is “threatened” in any way, that passion quickly turns into a fervent and ardent opposition. This reality forces change within in a nonprofit organization to be approached with a “bottom up” mentality rather than “top down”. What can we learn from that approach that is applicable in all seasons of change?
1. Do Ask, Don’t Tell – we know that change will happen constantly, so why not constantly anticipate it? The most effective way to do so is to ask your constituents how things are going all the time. Have a constant conversation with the people most affected by potential change. The trends in their feedback will indicate where change is needed. When we wait for issues to bubble up to the “top”, it causes the need for sweeping change, which in turns causes all stakeholders to react emotionally. Listening closely allows you to make subtle course corrections all the time.
2. Create Consensus – when change is implemented by a small group of “distant decision makers” the response from the subsequent layers in the organization is almost always negative. The content or reasons for change matter less than the way it was pushed down. Conversely, if you can illustrate the reasons change is needed and gain buy in from those who will be most affected first, you’re chance of success increases exponentially. Peoples’ defenses go down when the ideas are coming from the ground, and they will actually care about why change is needed.
3. Change Your Changes – because change is constant, it is often filled with mistakes. The changes your organization makes are not always going to work. In fact, if you have a culture that is open to change and make it easily, your changes will likely fail frequently. Change breeds innovation and growth, but always at the price of failing and falling. Recognizing this on the front end, and being open to quickly change the previous changes you’ve made will increase your odds greatly. Just as volunteers are sometimes overly passionate and adverse to change, organizational leaders can often be overly emotional about their own ideas. Stay focused on your mission and goals, not whether or not you’re always right.
Recently I caught a Reds baseball game at the impressively beautiful Great American Ball Park. Every time I walk in, I am reminded of my childhood memories of the old Riverfront stadium which stood on that same ground years ago. When it was torn down, I felt like my memories of game 2 of the 1990 World Series sitting beside my dad were being threatened as well. I was mad. But sitting in the far superior stadium, and looking at my own son sitting beside me, makes the need and importance for change clear.