Making Organizational Change That Stays, Even When People Don’t

Making Organizational Change That Stays, Even When People Don’t
June 2013 by Emily Anthony and Julie Edsforth

As consultants, there is nothing more satisfying than going back to an organization we have worked with after a year or two and seeing sustained positive change. Whether it’s implementing a strategic plan, raising more money, or building the board, it’s great to see it all come together and really WORK!

Organizational Change

But the flipside can happen too: we go back and see that the promise of improvement has not really taken root. Which got us thinking: what do organizations that are really successful at making and sustaining change have in common? And could we somehow capture that “secret sauce” and build it into our process so we wouldn’t have to go back and see our clients faltering? We spent most of this year thinking, talking, and learning about these questions, and we recently “debuted” our ideas in a workshop for Social Venture Partners (thanks, SVP!) Here are some of the most important things we’ve learned about helping organizations really sustain change.

As consultants we are often brought in at the beginning of the change effort: energy, effort, and excitement are running high. The decision to engage a consultant means some critical mass of people have decided it’s worth the investment of their time and treasure. Leadership makes a compelling case for change and have genuine conviction that it can happen. These components are all essential to success… but it’s not where the story ends.

Certainly, things are often better at first. But then the consultants wrap up their contract, or board members’  terms end, or staff members move onto other organizations, and before long no one can remember what the fundraising trainer said, or that you agreed to have a mission moment at every meeting, or exactly how that new decision-making framework was supposed to work.

What, then, can we do to stay committed to change through the rough spots of implementation, when “everything can look like failure in the middle”? 

It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change

It’s our belief that most organizational improvements require culture change, and must be approached in that way. Training and planning efforts are often doomed if not considered in this context. “Can you come train our board to be more accountable?” organizations will ask us. Well, yes and no. Sure, we can come in and share the best practices of governing boards and why accountability is important. But if that “training” is not supplemented by an understanding of the specific roadblocks that are holding the board back, a plan for putting new skills into action, and support and cheerleading along the way as people try on new roles for themselves, we can almost guarantee that the training will be a waste of everyone’s time and money. Success starts with the realization that behaviors and habits change in a sustainable way only when underlying beliefs and assumptions change. And staying committed and engaged during the inevitable peaks and valleys of the change process is essential.   

A simple framework for sustaining improvements over time

For our workshop we borrowed and adapted from Craig Jerald’s article: Sustaining Improvement Efforts Over the Long Run – More Than Maintenance (2012).  What’s most striking to us about this framework is how straight-forward it is. There is no magic bullet, despite our desire to find one, and even these phases morph and overlap as you go. It’s about consistent effort and focus, especially by the leaders of the team.   

Phase 1: Maintain new practices through and beyond initial implementation year

  • Keep a sharp eye on how the change process is affecting the team
  • This is when new habits take root - build concrete habits that keep the change moving forward
  • Pay attention to warnings signs or obstacles that might threaten the effort, and head off problems early
  • Recognize and celebrate successes when they happen

Phase 2: Extend improvements by leveraging early successes

  • Instead of "declaring victory" too soon, use the credibility your early successes afford you by tackling even bigger problems
  • Be opportunistic: identify and go after systems and structures that aren't consistent with the change vision and haven't been confronted yet but you sense are “ripe” for change
  • Develop "next generation" improvements even as you work to maintain new practices that are already working

Phase 3: Adapt change over time to reflect what is learned

  • Fine-tune: tweak individual reform elements to ensure they reflect changes in the environment
  • Expectations, policies, leaders, board members, external environment - everything changes - adapt or die! 
  • Stay firm on mission, vision, and values. But question everything else: practices, protocols, structures, job definitions, schedules, etc.
  • Constantly try new things and throw out things that don't work. No sacred cows!
  • Be willing to fail - some of your best moves come about through trial and error, opportunism and experimentation

A case study in organizational change

A local organization contacted us in the spring of 2011 to help them launch a capital campaign. They knew they had potential to raise more money than they were currently bringing in from individual donors, but weren’t sure how and were frustrated that other organizations seemed to enjoy more success than they did.  As we got started, we quickly realized we were trying to treat a problem without diagnosing it first. We all agreed we should take a step back and try to figure out what change was needed rather than diving into a campaign. 

Key step one: They invested in good diagnosis so they knew what problem to solve.

It’s hard to fix a problem until you understand what’s really causing it. Through an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of their fundraising program, it became clear they needed to revitalize their asking strategies. Many volunteers, board members and community members were involved in the organization, and they had a long history of genuinely nurturing relationships over time. But when it came to actually asking donors to make a financial investment, there was great reluctance. Through the assessment, they became aware that their culture, behaviors, and beliefs about asking needed to change. By accurately assessing their situation, they invested their change energy in the right process, which turned out NOT to be a one-time capital campaign.  

Key step two:  They went all in on the change.

They agreed to focus on changing their culture around asking, and put the bulk of their energy in one place. Everyone knew this was the goal. The Executive Director told us that in the first year, staff members were often found carrying around the assessment report in order to keep it top of mind! They made a plan and set some really ambitious goals, and they got busy reaching out to donors and asking for gifts. 

Key step three: They persevered through the hard parts and got support.

Of course, they experienced pushback in a few places. Some members of the Board were nervous and not completely bought into the rationale for change. People who were new to asking or had done things differently in the past needed time to talk through how they felt about the new approach. Certain conversations had to happen over and over again, which could be frustrating for team members who were more ready to move forward.   They had to scale back some of their initial goals so they could take a little more time to be ready. But they invested in training and coaching through the initial stages, kept their focus on the goal, and pushed through those hard parts.  By the end of year one they had experienced great success: 40 more in-person donor meetings than the year before; 95% of people they sat down with pledged, and most increased their gift. GiveBIG gifts tripled in year one.

Key step four: They built on the momentum of a great first year.

With a sense of significant accomplishment in year one, year two was about going deeper and further than their initial plans. They went back to their most loyal donors and shared their successes, and this built enthusiasm and increased engagement. They were able to adapt their approach as new opportunities (such as corporate giving) came their way. They checked their actual results against goals at least twice a quarter so they could make adjustments as needed. By the end of year two, they had achieved significant growth in board, individual, and corporate giving, and they saw tangible evidence of changes in attitudes and beliefs in multiple ways. 

Key step five:  They continue to invest in their own learning and support.

They continue to meet as a team, review their donor data, troubleshoot issues that arise, and identify where they need to evolve and adapt their plan based upon what they’re learning. In January they called us and reported that, while things are great, occasionally issues come up about how to approach a specific donor or make a particular ask, and they would love some feedback about what to do about them. We met with them for 90 minutes once a month for four months. Coaching not only helped them work through the sticky points in their implementation plan, but it was also a monthly incentive for the team to sit down and look at the plan again in a “big picture” way. They report that it’s gotten a lot easier than when they started. They feel confident and committed to their abilities as fundraisers to directly ask for gifts and their financial health as an organization has increased as a result. We can’t wait to see where they go next!

Some practical strategies

How can we turn the key points from the above case study into universal tips to apply to other change efforts? Through reflection and discussion with our clients and colleagues, we’ve identified these practical tips to keep top-of-mind:

Champion the change

  • Ensure a strong partnership and shared enthusiasm for the change between leaders of the organization - if it's not a high priority for them, then it likely won't be successful
  • Grow, nurture, and groom leadership from within the board or staff team to champion ongoing change effort
  • Cultivate a sense of shared positive identity around the change. As Chip and Dan Heath say in Switch (one of the best resources on change, and a fun and easy read!): “To create and sustain change, you’ve got to act more like a coach and less like a scorekeeper. You’ve got to embrace a growth mindset and instill it in your team.”

Build and nurture the team

  • Distribute responsibility for change efforts across as many board and staff members as possible
  • Beware of "over-functioning" team members – this works against sustaining improvements over time
  • Host robust board and staff orientations explaining where you've been and where you're going. Consider buddy systems and small team workgroups – these increase accountability

Message the change

  • Develop a communications strategy for the change effort and vigorously message it – everyone needs to know they are in the process of intentional change.
  • Constantly articulate the purpose and the destination, and normalize failure and inevitable roadblocks
  • Explicitly call out and reframe beliefs and attitudes – these are the real roadblocks to sustained change

Pace yourself

  • Be realistic about what you can actually do
  • Break down the change into bite-sized pieces
  • Build in small wins so people can see the impact

Document, evaluate, and celebrate

  • Collect lots of information on the impact of new initiatives. "If you don't write it down, it never happened”
  • History matters - build upon and learn from context and effort of past change
  • Don’t forget to highlight, recognize and reward your success - this is key to motivating people to attempt change again

What have you found to help make change last? We’d love to hear your success stories, challenges, and tips. Comment below!


Thanks for this article. I really enjoyed reading about your case study. Made me think about my leadership and how to impact, encourage and incentivize change across the organization.