Skip to main content

A group of Roman Catholic nuns whose order faced extinction contemplated its future. With just over 100 members, an average age of 82 and no new nuns joining for quite some time, it was clear that the order would disappear in about 20 years. The question before them was “What can we create today that will perpetuate our values in a world where we no longer exist?” The decision to center their strategy on preserving core values crystalized for me a lesson learned over 25 years of working in the nonprofit sector: the secret to successful change, and managing the fear and uncertainty that comes with it, is to focus first on what is not going to change.

This concept is my mantra at the beginning of any planning process. As a consultant who specializes in designing and facilitating strategic and succession planning processes, my role is to help organizations plan ahead. This kind of visioning inevitably leads to identifying what will be different at the end of the process. After the organization’s team has identified the central issues that are driving the need to look ahead, the next activity is to step back and discuss what is not going to change. As people answer this question, what surfaces is a clear picture of the organization’s essence – the core of its mission and the values that form the bedrock of its culture. This becomes the solid ground on which participants stand while contemplating and implementing change. How the mission is advanced may look very different at the end of the planning process, but the mission itself and the values behind it will be stronger than ever.

How often do nonprofit professionals and board members complain about strategic planning, saying, “After spending all this this time and effort and money, the plan just sat on a shelf and nothing really changed.” There are any number of reasons why this might be so; perhaps the people responsible for implementing the plan had little role in designing it or there was no realistic and detailed implementation strategy. From my perspective, it is just as likely that the plan did not consider how the organization’s leadership deals with change, both as individuals and collectively. Leaders and staff may flirt with change during the planning process, but when it comes to actually implementing change, a natural resistance can arise and the brakes go on.

Having served as a leader and advised organizations with a wide range of missions and budgets, I can see that the one element most needed for any organization to stay healthy and relevant is the willingness to embrace change. Even if the goal is stasis, an organization still needs to be nimble, accepting and respond to changes thrust upon it by circumstances over which there is never any control.

One of the great rewards of working in the nonprofit world is the opportunity to work with many amazing leaders — charismatic founders changing the course of their field or creating a new one; brilliant strategists who are always pushing the envelope and staying ahead of the game; and CEOs undaunted by the innovation required to adapt and survive. On the flip side, I’ve seen first-hand the many ways that intransigence and ego can stunt growth, and even lead to the demise of an organization. The need to embrace change is the one constant in an ever-changing world. The only choice is whether to greet inevitable change with resistance or grace.

Essence of Being Strategic

Staying true to core values and mission is an essential component of leading through change. There are several tools and techniques that also contribute to success when approaching a change process:

Be Patient

Part of planning for change is developing a clear and engaging vision for the future. Anyone with a vision has likely gone through some internal process to arrive at this view. Just sharing that vision, however exciting, is not always enough. Allow others on the team the time they need to go through their own process in order to adopt that perspective and catch up. Some people may even feel forced to join the planning for the envisioned future. When it comes time to actually implement the changes needed to make the vision a reality, their support may evaporate. Be prepared to encourage them to participate and make the shared goals their own.

Be Inclusive

Change is most successful when those who have a stake in the outcome are engaged in the planning process. Offering people authentic ways to participate can make them feel safe in the midst of uncertainty and lead to unanticipated and valuable contributions in every phase of the process. Engaging all the key players can ensure even those who are most anxious about the process become comfortable.

Be Clear

Articulate the need to change in a clear and compelling manner – staying centered in the shared values and mission. Make sure that everyone involved, particularly those furthest from top management, hear from leadership that change is going to happen in a well-ordered, thoughtful and inclusive manner. Continue to communicate clearly and regularly throughout the planning process. This can help others understand that, while the change to follow may be uncomfortable at first, it is necessary and non-negotiable.

Be Persuasive

Before launching any change project, gather data to help demonstrate why the change is necessary and beneficial. Articulating the shared values is the first data set to collect, followed by facts and figures that support the rationale for a new vision. Some participants may wonder why change is necessary at all. Data that proves why change is imperative can persuade them of the need for change.

Be Open

Many participants and leaders find that their vision adapt in the process of gathering data and engaging with stakeholders. Be prepared to let go of ideas that no longer fit and be open to try a new approach. These decisions will be based on the agreed-upon values, solid data and the principles that the group decided would not change.

Guiding an organization through change is a challenge for any leader. Board members and staff may be entrenched in old ways and methods. They often have extremely divergent ideas of the direction the organization should take. By identifying shared values and using the tools and techniques that lead to meaningful engagement, all participants can better approach the task of evolving in a way that brings everyone along. The process will become more natural and fluid, and, like the group of Roman Catholic nuns, the organization will be able to successfully effect change that is meaningful and lasting.

As for the nuns, their plans are still evolving. Their commitment to social justice led to selling some assets and endowing a local foundation with enough funds to sustain a training program for emerging advocates. Their belief that we are all stewards of the earth that God created led to donating more than 30 acres of pristine landscape on the Hudson River to the Westchester Land Trust, where the land and its ecosystem can be protected from development in perpetuity. On that land is a small cemetery, plus several shaded groves with benches. There, future generations can come to find peace and contemplate the gifts and the spirit that these devout and courageous women have bequeathed to us all.