Change: What Do You Mean, Change?!

Change: What Do You Mean, Change?!

So how many leaders in your organization does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: Change – what do you mean, change?!

Change does not come easily for many.  That’s true with individuals and it’s true in the leadership of many nonprofits.  While too much change certainly can do major harm, not enough change can be equally damaging.  We all learn from successes and failures.  Over the years, I’ve encountered both and have learned some lessons.  Allow me to share a few.

Positive Change

While serving at a higher education institution several years ago, the idea to change the name of the institution surfaced from within its leadership.  From the President’s Cabinet and extending well into board sub-committees and ultimately the board itself, there was an extensive process to assess pro’s and con’s to the change.  While no new specific name was driving the process, the board and leadership wanted to test the waters on the impact of a change at this level.  Through due diligence, there was ultimately unanimous vote to change the name and a vast majority of constituents gave approval.

Costly Change

Ironically, it was during this time that I was privileged to begin serving on the board of an urban ministry.  Within six months, I found myself serving as the Board Chair. Among many of the challenges we faced, one of the largest was facing the reality that the board had woefully ignored its fiduciary responsibilities, resulting in a negative cash flow. Despite efforts to see more revenues come in via advancement efforts, we came to a firm, unanimous conclusion that we had to cut staff and reduce salaries.  This certainly was a painful change as it impacted the lives of staff and those being served. But we knew the decisions had to be made.

Lessons Learned

Here are some lessons I’ve learned that may help you and your organizations if you’re considering making any kind of substantial change:

Keys to Positive Change:

  1. Prayer.  Discussions and decisions are bathed in prayer
  2. Research.  While creative ideas on opportunities can kick-start or energize discussion, far too often the felt need is based on anecdotal evidence.  Spend time looking at the facts, i.e. is there empirical evidence that can be quantified, measured or researched to make sure the change(s) being considered make sense?
  3. Return on Mission (ROM). When considering making a change, ask the tough questions of how the proposed change compliments your organization’s mission and vision.  If it doesn’t, the idea might be bad or the timing might not be right.
  4. Cost Benefit/Analysis.  With most change, there’s a monetary value that comes along with it.  Be sure to have your eyes wide open on the short, medium and long-term strengths and weaknesses of what will take place if a change is made.
  5. Clear Outcomes.  Start with the end in mind.  Once you have peace that the ultimate outcome makes sense, it’s easier to take the steps towards change, and you’re not dissuaded by the detractors who say the change should not take place.
  6. Include Key Stake Holders.  The right to be heard is arguably the most powerful gift you can give anyone in the process. Even if there are strong opinions that argue against the change, carefully listen to others who don’t agree with you and assure their voice has been heard.
  7. Timeline.  As much as possible, create a timeline for the steps related to the proposed change.  By providing a timeline, it forces you and others involved to stay focused, it holds you accountable and provides a common understanding to all involved as to when key input is needed.  Be flexible, however, as there will likely be many factors that will alter your timeline and process towards change.


Barriers That Impede Change

  1. Entrenched Thinking.  Sometimes staff, the board or constituents can thwart the best ideas or efforts to change because they’re holding onto the past or present too tightly.  Their risk aversion might impede good judgment on what the new change can produce for the betterment of the organization.
  2. Non-Inclusion of Stake Holders.  Failure to include stakeholders can be a huge mistake as it often leads to inadequate buy-in.
  3. Not Considering the Costs.  From revenue-realities to staff costs to constituent engagement, making the decision to “change” before asking the question “what’s this going to cost us?” puts the cart before the horse.
  4. Convergence of Old and New.  Failure to spend time helping people understand how the proposed change compliments and strengthens your mission/vision can be a critical mistake. People want to see how the old and the new converge to make something better or stronger. Patience and intentional communication is needed to ensure there’s an enfolding of ideas.  Without alighment, staff, board members, supporting constituents and those being served by your organization can be quickly confused or disillusioned.


 As you step forward with making possible changes within your organization, be reminded that everyone all will be right by your side. Like being the first to walk up a hill, not all will see what you see. That’s probably why you’re called a leader.  Bring others along and show them a better way.  If you don’t, all you’re doing is taking a walk – by yourself.

1 Comment
  • Stephane
    Posted at 16:10h, 18 July Reply

    Great article Nate! I will be sharing with the Development Board of Algoma Christian School.

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