Nonprofit Change Management: New Systems to Scale Impact and Grow Giving

A butterfly emerges from a cocoon, just like your nonprofit will emerge from your change management process.

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Whether it’s overhauling your database, starting a new process to onboard volunteers, or adopting a responsive fundraising approach, making changes at your nonprofit can be exciting.

It can also be really, really difficult.

We tackled nonprofit change management at the Responsive Fundraising Summit, with the help of four experts who lead nonprofits through change processes every day.

We were joined by:

Rubin Singh, CEO & Founder, OneTenth Consulting
Maureen Wallbeoff, Nonprofit Digital Strategist, Meet Maureen
Javan Van Gronigen, Creative Director and Founder, Fifty-Fifty
Alyssa Boger, VP Client Strategy, Pursuant

What Makes Change So Hard for Nonprofits?

Why is making a change such a big deal? What causes change processes to fail? Our experts identified three major roadblocks nonprofits hit when they’re trying to make a change.

1. Skeptical Staff

Many nonprofit professionals are hesitant about change because they’ve witnessed change processes fail. It’s hard to get excited about a new change if you have a history of half-done changes, changes that never really stuck, or initiatives that were abandoned. “I think that makes people flinchy,” says Maureen Walleboff. “‘Here comes another change. We didn’t do so hot the last time. I’m in a self-protective mode right from the jump.’”

If people are starting the change with the expectation that it will fail, go wrong, or never materialize, it’s hard to get the buy-in needed for success. When you recognize where change went wrong in the past, you can take steps to avoid making the same mistakes again, which will build everyone’s confidence in the change.

When things have gone wrong in the past, it’s easy for nonprofits to focus solely on what could go wrong, or why a change is “impossible.” Alyssa Bognar identified an “impossibility mindset” as another big problem for organizations. To combat it, she recommends brutal honesty about what isn’t working, along with focusing on breakthrough goals. Once you all agree that the status quo is no longer acceptable, and can envision the future with the change, you can start looking at how to make the change possible.

2. Change Management Isn’t Prioritized

Change doesn’t happen by magic. It takes real work to get your people, processes, and plans in order. Jumping directly into a new project and hoping everyone will adapt without creating a process for them to do so or give feedback doesn’t work.

In order to inspire confidence in the change and get real buy-in, you need to start managing the change process from the beginning. If you undertake a new initiative but don’t do anything to manage the change until you’re deep into the process, you’re starting too late. “Change management is often too little, too late,” says Rubin Singh. Instead, he recommends bringing people into the new system as soon as possible.

3. Expectations Aren’t Aligned

When you change a system or process, people will have expectations. If their expectations are outside of the scope of the change, they will be disappointed. For example, if you’re not rolling out a feature of new technology until later in the game, people who expect it at go-live will be frustrated.

If you’re very transparent about what’s possible, when things will happen, and what to expect, you can avoid a lot of trouble and discontent.

What Makes Change Possible?

While change is hard, it’s not impossible. We see organizations making big changes, and getting big results, all the time. What makes that possible?

1. Simplicity

Adopting a new system or technology can solve problems, but don’t expect it to be a one-stop solution to every single issue you face. “Start with a foundation that is ramping your system to your organizational goals,” says Maureen. If you focus on those goals, you’ll stay on track. Just because a technology has a lot of potential and capability doesn’t mean you should roll it all out at once. “We set ourselves up for failure by making it too big,” she says. Build and scale as you go.

Rubin reminds nonprofit leaders to stay solid on the basics: growing talent, optimizing processes, and making sure data is clean and accessible. With those elements in place, you’ll be prepared to successfully pivot as the need for change arises.

2. Make the Case with Metrics

Let data guide your change process, Alyssa advises. The data will tell you where growth opportunities are, and help you unite stakeholders around the change. You’ll get greater collaboration and buy-in if you can show what you’re trying to do and the growth you expect. Look for the data points or donor insights that support the change. “Your board is typically motivated by those key metrics,” she says.

Javan recommends acquiring data by conducting small-scale, focused tests. For instance, if you suspect you could improve your digital advertising results, you can do a short-term, low-budget experiment with social media ads, without throwing out your whole direct mail strategy or revamping every donor communication. The data you get from your experiment will help you decide whether or not you should shift anything bigger.

3. Engage Stakeholders

Who are the decision-makers, and when are they expected to weigh-in? If you aren’t clear about this, you can find yourself in the all-too-common situation of having a project well underway and then getting crushed or seriously revisioned by boards, bosses, or other stakeholders. This is bad for budgets, change processes, and morale. Javan recommends deciding upfront about who makes decisions. “Don’t avoid that conflict, get it out in the open, it never goes away,” he says.

Many nonprofit changes drastically impact the donor experience, but donors are often left out of the discussion completely. Alyssa recommends inviting a donor in as an expert on their own experience if it makes sense. Then you’ll keep the end-user in mind throughout the process, instead of presenting them with a finished product they can’t affect.

4. Dismantle Silos

If a change affects your data or how it’s used, it probably also affects more than one department. Change is most successful when everyone has an opportunity to give feedback and be part of the process. “You can’t just say this is the fundraising team stuff or this is the marketing and communication teams stuff. That’s a problem,” says Maureen.

Something that a development department loves could be frustrating the finance or volunteer departments. “If you are resisting feedback from others who are using the system, too, it’s going to fall apart. It won’t be adopted across the organization. You’re going to start with workarounds immediately, which is never a great way to start using a new system,” she says.

5. Pursue Small, Measurable Goals

It’s easy for goals to get lofty, like “build a better donor experience” or “improve the donor journey” The real success is when you ask “how?” and get specific. There are a hundred different ways to improve a donor experience, but without minute goals about donor retention, acquisition, gift size or frequency, or number of contacts, you’ll have no way of knowing if you achieved it.

Javan recommends making small, quantitative goals that you can use to hold yourself accountable. “What makes sense for this investment?” he asks, “Where is it going to get us to?” Once you’ve identified what the goal is, you can measure it against your analytics and have real data about the change and how it’s working.

6. Fight Inertia

It is easier to nothing than something, especially in a year that has been exhausting for everyone. Inertia is a powerful force, but you can’t let it determine your course. Each of the experts on the panel has their own way of conquering it.

Rubin recommends revisiting your core values and connecting to what drives you. Maureen seeks to find the root cause of the inertia and figure out what the real problem is. Javan forces each project into a one-pager, focusing in on what’s really important. Alyssa invests in her team, seeking to facilitate understanding between them so they can work together in the best possible way.

Learn More

With the right process and plan for change management, you can start moving your nonprofit towards the future you envision. It won’t be easy, but it is absolutely possible. Check out the entire discussion to get all the tips and insight from experts who’ve led organizations like yours through changes large and small.

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