Organizational Change: 2 Ways to Reduce the Sting

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In my last post, I encouraged you to be proactive and prep your organization for Change. Because sooner or later it's coming.

Let me guess: You like things just the way they are, and you'd prefer a dental visit to yet another organizational change.  Well, I can't tell you how to avoid Change, but I can offer two tips to help you navigate it when it comes to visit.

2 Change Management Tips

Whether a significant organizational Change was planned not, it has to be managed. So try these tips for managing Change when it arrives at your place.


Accept that addressing a significant organizational change may require a process, not an event.

This first tip is really about managing  your expectations. I know you; you don't like the disruption that Change brings. You want everything and everybody back to "normal" by the close of business!

When a big Change shows up, good luck with that. (I don't believe in luck, by the way.) Your expectation (translate, insistence!) that everything get back to normal immediately can create unnecessary stress and distress for your staff. In turn, people under stress sometimes make more mistakes or practice avoidance.

Delaying your journey back to "normal" even more.

Here's An Illustration

Let me show you what I mean by change requiring a process vs. an event:

Years ago a successful thirty-plus-year-old organization asked me to help them manage a big organizational Change. Their founder and only executive director was planning to retire. Because the board had months to prepare, they weren't in emergency mode. But they were wise enough to anticipate the need for a process rather than an event.

What do I mean?

The board could have assessed the Change this way: "Well, we hate to lose our founder, but we have to think about the future. So let's have the Personnel Committee create a position description for approval at next month's board meeting. Then, we'll get it to our head hunter and set up interviews as soon a possible. Let's get this thing done!"

They could have hired a new exec and considered that the end of the story. That would have been what I'm calling an event-- a simple, straightforward transaction.

But that's not what they did.

The transition of a founding exec can be a tricky time for an organization--for the board, the staff, clients, funders, and even the new exec. So in this case, the founder, the board, and I created a plan for managing this big Change. That plan was made up of a series of big steps, each consisting of smaller steps. All the work leading up to the transition took about 6 months. 

And it worked beautifully.

The process helped ease the board and staff into the new world without the founder. And now that the board's role would shift, they adopted a more assertive role in shaping the organization's agenda and its future. That, in turn, helped them hire the right exec to lead the organization.

I'm happy to say the organization is still going strong and enjoying a great reputation.

To Recap...

When you face a big organizational Change, consider what's really needed. Is it an event that gets things back to normal quickly? Or is it a thoughtful process that takes longer, but produces better results?  Sometimes the first option is the better one. But don't let impatience and a dislike of "processes" push you into the wrong choice.


Change Is Hard. Prepare and Support Your People

Organizational Change is really a double-edged affair. First, you have the Change itself–the processes, procedures and actions needed to effect transformation. Then you have people’s responses to the Change.

Processes are a matter of logistics, timing, and logic. People......well, you know.

Mechanics vs. Feelings

Books like Leading Change talk about the mechanics of effective organizational transformation. The Change Cycle, on the other hand, offers insight into the way people react to change. Those reactions can help or hinder your Change efforts.

Change, by nature, is disruptive. It pushes people out of their comfort zones and introduces the unknown. It brings unfamiliar and uncomfortable circumstances and emotions. It might also take away control. These things add stress, and excess stress can hurt morale and lower productivity.

Yes, I know; you want everyone to hear your announcement about the Change and walk compliantly back to their cubicles, ready to deal efficiently with whatever you've asked of them. Good luck with that, too.

Ann Solerno and Lillie Bock, authors of The Change Cycle, after extensive research, learned that humans go through six predictable stages when faced with Change. At each stage we experience a predictable set of emotions that help or hinder us on our way to fully accepting each new situation. You can see the graphic that illustrates the stages HERE.

So an alternative to an authoritarian approach is to help those who are struggling with Change so they don't get stuck in negative emotions. No, you’re not a therapist. But negative emotions can translate into foot-dragging and passive resistance on the job. And you don’t want that.

So here are 7 things you can do to help support your people and keep them moving forward during the Change process:

  • Request input–-especially from those who usually feel overlooked and overworked and use it if you can. Change is always a bit easier when we feel more in control.
  • Keep the vision alive. Continue describing the “new and improved,” post-transformation world. Help your team see that the end result is worth the short-term pain.
  • Avoid getting stuck. Keep the Change process moving. No one wants to be in transition forever.
  • Deal quickly with saboteurs. One bad apple can become contagious if you fail to act.
  • Keep your team informed. Mystery is not sexy when it comes to organizational Change. Give regular progress reports.
  • Acknowledge dedication. Show appreciation for long hours, double duty and the other ways your people show up big, and
  • Celebrate interim milestones. Long transformations make short-term celebrations even more important for morale.

Prepare for Change

We've talked about those who have to carry out Change. Now, let's talk about ways to get your organization ready for it.

Job one is to plan for Change when you can. Change doesn’t always announce its arrival, but you can be ready for some of the most predictable forms of organizational Change.

For example, sooner or later, a key board or staff member will leave. The exit or absence of a key organizational player can affect your programs, fundraising, or stakeholder relationships.

You can minimize this kind of disruption by creating succession and emergency staffing plans

Succession planning is a process of identifying board and staff members who can be trained to take on greater responsibility or move to the next level of leadership to replace a key player who must be absent for a time or who leaves the organization.

An emergency staffing plan would describe the way every major function would be handled if a key staff member left the organization or needed an extended absence. Typically, this kind of plan includes proactive cross training to ensure that back-up staff members are well-acquainted with essential functions.

Succession and emergency staffing plans allow you to decide how you'll cover key responsibilities when their “owners” must be absent--in advance.

But What Happens In a Crisis?

A crisis plan is another helpful tool. Even though you may not see a particular crisis coming, you can decide in advance how your leadership team will respond to one.

For example, know who will speak publicly for your organization if a crisis should arise and attract outside attention. Decide how you’ll manage messages to the staff and outside stakeholders throughout the crisis.

Planning for a crisis in advance can help your leaders think through possible scenarios and decide how to respond. Panic is a natural human response in a crisis, and your leaders are not immune to it.  But they can take thoughtful action quickly when they have a crisis plan to turn to.

The most important advice I can give you about developing a crisis plan is to do it now. Create the plan BEFORE a crisis hits. I know it's hard to "get around to it," because you're busy. But fail to do it, and you'll be "busy" scrambling for answers if and when a crisis hits.

A Planning Resource

Joanne Fritz, the Nonprofit Guide at, offers practical tips for developing your own plan in her article, Top 6 Tips for Effective Nonprofit Crisis Planning.


Now let me offer a final word about this. I’ve worked with a few nonprofits in the past who saw Change coming or who saw the need for Change. They talked about it, asked for help, and in the end failed to act on the advice they received. 

The reasons for not acting varied, but those organizations failed. They no longer exist. They didn't make time for the basics, and they failed to navigate Change.

An Inspiring Example

The LiveStrong Foundation is a great example of strong leadership under fire. This board dealt with their changing fortunes with courage and grace.

LiveStrong 's board lived with the stress of unproven accusations against their high-profile founder for several years. Then one day a full-blown crisis struck when founder Lance Armstrong confessed his steroid use to Oprah Winfrey on air.

LiveStrong’s  board had not sat idly by waiting for trouble all those years, though. The board had formulated solutions well in advance. They made tough choices that helped LiveStrong weather the double blast of scrutiny and criticism. And the organization is still standing strong, committed to its mission.

Most nonprofits will never receive that level of scrutiny, and most aren't at risk of losing millions of dollars a year. But your mission is important to the people you serve. Will you protect it?

I've learned a few things about Change over the years, and if you’ve been through big Changes, you know too, that resolving them the easy way beats the hard way. Every day of the week!

I hope you choose the easy way.


UPDATE JUNE 1, 2013: You may have heard that after years of partnership, Nike is not renewing its support of the LiveStrong Foundation. After what I wrote in this post, I was curious about the impact the announcement would have on the Foundation. And let me tell you, I’m more impressed with this board than ever.

The LiveStrong board issued a beautifully-written, positive, and compelling press release about Nike’s decision and about the Foundation’s prospects for the future. Here’s a quote from that press release:

"This news will prompt some to jump to negative conclusions about the Foundation's future. We see things quite differently. We expected and planned for changes like this and are therefore in a good position to adjust swiftly and move forward with our patient-focused work. Because of our sound fiscal health, the Foundation is well-positioned to continue to grow our free services for cancer patients and survivors that improve quality of life and access to care. Because of our excellent governance and quality of service, the Foundation remains one of the most highly-rated and effective non-profits in the United States. Because 14 million Americans face the daily challenges of living with cancer, our mission has never been more critical and for some, it will mean the difference between life and death."

I’m sure talented wordsmiths crafted LiveStrong's impressive message. But I’m no less impressed by this board who, instead of becoming battle weary, lifted their collective heads and declared the mission to serve those affected by cancer to be alive and well. Good for you, LiveStrong. Somebody pass me my checkbook.