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How Nonprofits Benefit from Embracing Change Management

Change is a constant in life. It’s everywhere: new products on the market, changing roles at work, the price of gas going up and down, fashions, technology, children growing up, and a new generation emerging. It is unstoppable, yet we treat change like an intermittent event with longer periods of stability in between. Change is not a one-time event, though. It is a process, whether for people, for groups, or organizations.

For any company, change is difficult. Whether implemented by the organization itself or by circumstances beyond its control, change creates a ripple effect, reaching into all areas of a project or service to a client. Without a plan for how to adapt, the organization can fall victim to disjointed leadership and staff, budget issues, project stalls, or losing the ability to remain relevant.

Nonprofits are no exception, and perhaps even experience this to a greater extent due to the lack of margin within budgets, typically smaller staff and service in other countries where external factors are always at play. Ministries in particular have a unique set of challenges when approaching change, as scripture, creeds, liturgy, history and tradition provide definition and crucial foundation for the organization.

A solid change management plan is therefore of the utmost importance when it comes to nonprofit and ministry organizations.

Change management is a proactive approach to handling changes within an organization or project, whether intentional or unexpected. It’s not so much a specific role or function but a necessary competency for each company to have a firm grasp on to avoid even greater ripples affecting the organization due to scrambling or miscommunication.

Because nonprofits and ministries are so mission-focused, it can be tempting to remain big-picture focused and overlook the necessity to establish proven internal practices like change management or carefully assess how leadership decisions affect individual staff members and project components.

Change can come from any angle. It could be simply an unexpected loss — perhaps an individual in a leadership role or prominent leader affiliated with the organization passes away suddenly. Or a national issue, like a change in tax code resulting in the loss of a minister’s housing alliance or a down economy negatively impacting the donor base. The shift may be present in society as a whole, such as the advancement of Millennials and the resulting struggle for an aging ministry to adapt, or largely internal, like a change in mission or vision.

Some nonprofits work in risky environments like third-world nations or disenfranchised populations. This alone can mean unexpected changes like war, closed access or legal blockades. A nonprofit must have a plan in place to manage these wide-scope changes as well as the internal ones.

Change management requires attention in several areas, but after a plan is in place, clear communication is crucial to success. First, the plan must be implemented with leadership so that staff have someone to look toward and model after. If a plan is executed within staff first, it can cause division and confusion due to a cloudy message. The plan must also be clearly communicated, down to the individual, if at all possible. Whether a committee must be formed or individual opinions are reported by point people, each individual must know how his or her job will be affected by the change(s) and be given the opportunity to voice questions or concerns. Resistance is likely to occur and is normal, often even constructive. This feedback and discussion will help not only foster cooperation but will promote unity and get staff on board with the changes. Change will be extremely difficult to implement if the goals are not made clear and understood by everyone, even if not everyone agrees on the approach.

When an organization is implementing calculated change, it is important to not only communicate what will shift, but what will remain the same. Successful change hinges on a few aspects that remain constant, such as the organization’s vision and mission. Reminding team members of these constants and explaining the gain received by saying “yes” to specific changes will help ease the transition. When it comes to executing change, there is no such thing as over-communicating.

The culture and attitude within the organization must also be assessed to determine the overall feelings of the individuals and how best to respond. This must not be done only at the onset of change but at several points along the way as decisions are made and policies are implemented to continue the conversation, create ownership and maintain unity. In a ministry setting, systems and customary procedures, stakeholders, leadership and the congregation must all be taken into consideration when evaluating the organization’s preparedness for change and what needs to be done to minimize disruption.

Change can effect not just human resources, but project scope, budgets, stakeholders, risk, and procurement— often many of these aspects at once. Leadership must know how to react and who to include in the problem-solving process. If the organization takes the time to assess and re-assess these factors throughout the journey, the transition will be much smoother.

Above all, leadership must be patient in implementing change. It is a process and can take years to fully integrate and become the “new normal.” Once change has begun, going back is not an option. Leadership must stay the path and keep checking in with the progress, communicating efficiently and often, to ensure success.

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