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5 Critical Steps All Nonprofits Must Take to Embrace Change

A nonprofit veteran examines the theme “Shift or Drift” explored at TractionForce Toronto

Is your nonprofit organization coasting and has it reached a plateau? Are you working harder than ever to increase or just maintain revenue? If so, you likely haven’t thought about making critical shifts within your organization recently enough.

I have spent nearly 15 years working with multiple nonprofits and every year, I spent time implementing big, important shifts. One year it was implementing a new CRM and overhauling our technology to help us fundraise easier. Another year it was adopting a new mission statement. Setting up new programs. Establishing new department structures. Engaging in new partnerships. And with all the “new” it was usually necessary to refocus and leave something behind – not the least of which were old (but comfortable) habits.

TractionForce Toronto forced us to look deep within ourselves

At our first-ever TractionForce Toronto, the conversations on and offstage challenged us to think about our relationship with change. The theme Shift or Drift forced us to think about whether we are courageous contributors who embrace and create the necessary shifts to keep our organizations relevant, or whether we are stuck on yesterday and resistant to change.

Having worked at nonprofits for more than a decade, I’ve gained valuable insight and have personally experienced the fear of change. The problem is that without regular, meaningful shifts, organizations reach a “crisis point” as they stare down a chasm so large the change required to ensure effective and efficient operations becomes daunting and potentially risky.

The voice inside our heads might say, “I could lose my staff,” or “If we change program priorities, we could lose donor funding.” And, as is almost always the case with nonprofits, “We don’t have the time/money/ability to take on that project and do our day jobs.” The truth is, keeping our organizations effective, efficient and relevant is very much a part of our day jobs!

Here are five critical steps all nonprofits must take to embrace change:

1. Focus on the future

The road is long and bumpy with an unusual number of curves in the road, blocking one’s full awareness of what’s ahead. The important thing is to stay focused on your goals, both long and short-term. Making sure everyone is aligned is critical to successful change.

2. Get your leaders on board

Make sure your leaders are visible adopters of the change and have them meet with others in the community (employees, members, donors, partners, etc.). This gains two critical advantages: valuable information you can use to calibrate your plans for change and an opportunity to gain early adopters to the change itself.

3. Invest in your people

Your investment needs to match the significance of the shift you’re pursuing. Time and time again, organizations and their staff are already stretched, and the new project becomes an “extra” on top of one’s daily responsibilities. Time, attention and funding are critical to successful change management.

4. Enable your staff and colleagues

Is your staff unfamiliar with the technology you want to implement? Do they struggle with the concept of the ‘“cloud”? It can be difficult to make the leap from the old to the new so make sure you give people dedicated time to learn the new system. Make training a priority.

5. Engage your community

It’s critical to engage the wider community early. They can be your greatest allies or your fiercest foes. You don’t always get to pick who sides where but you have more power than you think to influence the outcome by simply communicating and asking for input. And, despite how hard it can be, move past the fear of losing donors, especially when it’s untested. Reinventing yourself, with a technological transformation or other change, shouldn’t instill this type of fear. After all, your ultimate goal is to continue fulfilling your mission — but better than before.

tractionforce attendees socializing
The theme “Shift or Drift” at TractionForce Toronto forced us to think about whether we are courageous contributors keeping our organizations relevant, or whether we’re resistant to change and stuck on yesterday’s decisions.

A few years ago, the nonprofit sector saw a monumental shift. Faced with declining revenue and increasing demand for program investments, the two largest Canadian cancer-focused charities sought to become one stronger, more efficient charity. That’s a real shift that took bold forward-thinking leadership. There are still 192 other registered Canadian charities with “cancer” in their name. I’m not saying there should be only one but I think the sheer volume of disparate organizations merits consideration. Now, think about what’s going to be needed to harmonize and maximize the effectiveness of their people? New technology, new processes, new habits… you bet!

Shift, don’t drift… away

So what are you doing to keep your organization as relevant today as the day it began? How are you reinventing what and how you deliver your mission? Seek the help you need so you can focus on delivering the critical work your organization does without sacrificing the attention your shift deserves.

I recommend checking out the blog article How to Lead a Digital Transformation and Make Sure it Sticks by my colleague and Nonprofit Principal Strategist at Traction on Demand, Laura Bibbo. The need for meaningful shifts is real if you want to avoid irrelevance.

Written by Paul Cescon, Nonprofit Strategic Solutions Consultant at Traction on Demand. He has spent more than 15 years within nonprofit organizations, leading revenue development, operations, program management and capital projects for various organizations.

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