Not-for-profit organizations, social sector groups and associations are not inherently designed to be nimble. The principles of democracy that underlie the structure of most non-profit organizations are by design slow and deliberative. The environment in which our members, customers, donors, clients and stakeholders live and work is sodden by overwhelming complexity, rapid innovations, urgency and an unrelenting pace of change. As a leader how do you manage the dichotomy?
The most successful leaders are developing “over the horizon” capabilities, looking ahead and contemplating how the environment impacts their members, donors, customers and stakeholders. Associations and non-profits know they must be vigilant about change, yet much like our own members, it has become increasingly difficult to parse the flood of ideas and information flowing into and out of our organizations. The sage wisdom of “not believing everything you read” has now given way to “not believing everything you read on the Internet”.
Change can come from anywhere. Good ideas can come from the social sector, venture capitalists, for-profit companies, staff, vendors, or the clever re-invention of our previous successes.
As a leader finding ways to let change permeate the cultural fabric of your organization is more essential than ever. The organizations that remain passive or reactive to the changes around them will watch the revolving door of departing members grow. You’ll also find that new alternatives will arise to meet a more refined set of your member’s needs and interests.
Alan Kay, the renowned computer scientist once remarked, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. That notion takes on an urgent new relevance in today’s non-profit environments. The three-year membership or donor development plan is giving way to a six-month strategy or the three-month pilot. Social media, electronic messaging, websites and short-run digital and variable data tools all provide inexpensive testing platforms for new ideas and bigger results. Big data is providing far more information, better outcome analysis and greater insight into the behaviors of members, donors, customers and stakeholders and the reasons behind those choices than ever before.
Okay, I recognize not every organization can invent the future. You also can’t take the position that you or your organization is somehow magically exempt from it. Waiting passively for change to arrive is a strategic mistake of epic proportion — one that is crushing organizations everyday. Why did Crumbs Bake Shop close up shop while Georgetown Cupcake and others continue to thrive? Finding strategic ways to think about the future is essential to assuring you are prepared to deal with coming changes in members tastes, interests and shifting marketplaces.
So how do you get started? Leaders at all levels in the organization need to accept responsibility for uncovering nascent changes and shifts in their marketplace and among their members, donors, customers and stakeholders. Looking at potential large-scale changes and indeed even incremental shifts can yield surprising and valuable insights. Here are five ideas to help you get started.
Successful organizations are always scanning the environment and are open to good ideas.
• Shifts in membership or potential member population demographics. Are your core members aging out of the association? Are you attracting a younger cohort to take their place? Would related groups, industries or professions benefit from your organization’s capabilities?
• Finding ways to take the pulse of what members are thinking. Regular surveys, focus groups and after action evaluations can help identify what changes are coming.
• What’s happening in the member or donor environment? What changes are they experiencing or expecting? In what ways might you help them?
• People who are not yet members; what do they need? How will you reach them?
• Improbable changes. Every good leader knows you can’t anticipate everything. Yet somehow the unthinkable needs to be considered.
Governance issues are now a focal point for change adept strategy.
- Leaders need to be pro-active when considering the Board role. Considering the Board’s unique culture and taking into consideration the realities in your organization are essential.
- What is your Board’s overall readiness for change? Which board members are tied to the way things have always been. Can you help them move into the future?
- Board focus on improving the future, the profession, and industry or sector the organization serves will yield far better outcomes than focusing on day-to-day management.
- Recruiting/nominating process that identifies Board needs (skills, knowledge) and qualified candidates. (A successful committee chair won’t necessarily make a good board member.)
- The Board needs a culture where discourse, inquiry and disagreement are accepted.
Understanding member needs and behaviors starts at the top.
- Successful leaders understand the environment their members operate in. Do you really know what’s impacting your member’s profession or trade? Do you have an active outreach plan? Member calls or visits can help uncover issues, shortfalls and opportunities in surprising and unexpected ways.
- Keeping track of member needs and behaviors help provide the rationale for board members to make needed changes. What is your organization tracking and why?
- Leaders and their teams need to reach out to diverse groups of members and prospective members to help connect the dots and share the member’s stories with volunteer leaders at all levels within the organization.
- Sharing the outcomes from member and non-member assessments and market research throughout the organization is essential to building a shared understanding of the obstacles and opportunities that lie ahead.
Creating the culture for change and success.
Leaders must assure staff leadership teams are open to different ideas and opinions coupled with a risk tolerance that allows for occasional failure. If you need good ideas, the best way to get them is to have lots of ideas. Some won’t work out. Be prepared to accept that and deal with it in a positive way.
- Engaging staff across the organization in a clear, continual and consistent manner helps make certain staff are well informed about what is happening in the organization and are encouraged to raise challenges, good ideas and problems so they can be resolved
- Successful leaders and organizations keep their word by following through on plans and decisions. Few things undermine morale or disrupt trust more than the failure of leaders and their organization to live up to the expectations they set for themselves.
- Change, innovation and creativity are not necessarily the same. Change is not always about creating something new; sometimes it can be about repackaging things in a new way.
- Successful organizations celebrate success.
Strengthening the Change Adept Nature of the Organization
- In a world where the lines between “serve or sell” are increasing blurred, leaders need to assure the work of volunteers and staff alike stay focused on mission as well as outcomes. Doing so assures you are focused on the future.
- Make sure change is driven by facts, well-researched data and information, rather than speculation or opinion. Opinion-rich decision-making is out.
- Successfully moving to a change adept organization is strengthened when the anticipated change is carefully considered, well planned and transparent. That doesn’t mean procrastinating, but it does mean being mindful.
- Be certain you are providing adequate resources to accommodate the change, whether it is new products, new process, new standards or new services. Few things erode confidence more than a demand for change or continuous improvement coupled with inadequate resources to successfully achieve the desired outcomes. Be realistic. Sure, we can debate the resources needed, however gaining consensus among those accountable at the start is essential to assuring success.
Sharpening Your Skills as a Change Adept Leader
Every leader faces myriad challenges in promoting change. There’s no one right way to do it. Finding ways to foster change and build a change adept organization will vary based on the organization, environment and staff and leadership. The certainty of disappointments along the way demands a deep pool of patience to accept change as the long-term process and proposition it is. It is difficult to get people’s attention, especially in tough economic times. Many times the people you will need to rely upon are already overwhelmed and can’t think about something new.
- Leaders must be a catalyst for change. Finding ways to build change into the life and culture of the organization is paramount. Anchoring it with board support is at the core of being change adept. It is important to recognize that change is not always triggered by external factors. Sometimes organizations atrophy.
- It’s important you realize a change in culture and internal structure may be essential to the success of new initiatives that will move your organization toward the future.
- Being savvy to change means creating a balance between understanding and respecting the organization’s traditions, while illuminating a shared vision of the future for the board, membership and staff. Painting a picture of how the organization will make the transition into that future is the embodiment of leadership. That savvy can’t necessarily be taught, but it can be enhanced.
- A leader can build upon institutional history by acting as a teacher and guide—explaining why things need to be done in a new way and enabling others to see the value and benefits of change.
Understand that conflict that comes with change.
The more rapid the change, the sharper the conflicts. Smart leaders immerse themselves in the challenges and work to mitigate the natural resistance to change experienced by volunteers, members, donors, stakeholders and staff alike. Prioritizing the flow of activities and communicating clearly, consistently and constantly about the pathways to the coming change is essential.
At the end of the day, the board, membership, donors, customers, stakeholders and staff look to you as the professional who can help them figure out how to move forward. It’s not news at this point that some people are more change adept than others. Identifying those individuals early in the change process gives you a core team to help carry the message forward. Helping all the stakeholders to embrace and be welcoming of change is a tall order even in the best of times. Making yourself change adept makes that possibility more likely than not. It’s already time to get started.