This guest post first appeared in PhilanTopic.
I have been thinking a lot about change lately.
It’s no secret that external change is often the enemy of an organization’s long-term impact. Think changes in public policy. Trends in fundraising. Challenges to mission. Shifts in consumer sentiment. And, frankly, philanthropic fads.
But internal change can be just as much or perhaps even more of a management challenge, and the implications of how we deal with that change — particularly at the leadership level — are critical.
Consider such internal challenges as:
- Change in organizational leadership – the CEO, president, or executive director;
- Change in board leadership due to term limits;
- Change in volunteer leadership at the ground level as volunteers move from one volunteer opportunity to another;
- Change in how volunteers themselves see their roles in the organization; and
- The need to make changes in "the way we do things" to avoid institutional inertia and dry rot.
No one has written about "change" and "transition" more eloquently than the author, speaker, and organizational consultant William Bridges, who asserts that "it isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions."
Perhaps the lessons I’ve drawn from dealing with internal management change and transitions, both in my own organization, The Association of Junior Leagues, International, and at others, can offer valuable insights for leaders of other nonprofits.
First, embrace the change — then plan the transition! This past year, a number of my colleagues in national organizations — including Irv Katz, CEO of the National Human Services Assembly, on whose board I serve — retired. As I can attest as a member of the CEO search committee, the impact of the retirement of a successful and beloved leader who had served for nearly fifteen years cannot be underestimated.
We were given plenty of notice of this transition, so we were able to conduct a thorough and thoughtful search for Irv's successor — the wonderful Gloria Johnson-Cusack, formerly the CEO of Leadership 18. But we also used the search process as an opportunity to take a close look at our strategic priorities. In addition, the board created a "transition committee" to onboard Gloria, establish priorities, provide feedback, and serve as a resource. While I can't claim credit for this idea, I certainly view it as a best practice.
Second, a little onboarding for board members can’t hurt. It's easy to assume that an organization's new board members don't need an orientation, but every board and every organization is different, and even a brief but thorough orientation by phone makes a difference. It's not enough to say, "Here are our bylaws and here are minutes of the last few meetings." Every year, our legal counsel reviews with the board the three duties of nonprofit board members — the duties of care, obedience, and loyalty. It sets a deliberate tone for the work of our board for the coming year.
Third, clearly articulate your organization's policies. Another way to minimize the negative impact of changes in staff or board leadership is through policy governance. Clearly articulated policies are not only hard to ignore, they provide consistency in the face of leadership change. Written policies articulate how the organization is going to be run and, more importantly, what is important to its future governance and growth. While we all have investment policies, reserve policies, whistleblower policies, and conflict of interest policies, we also need policy guideposts in operating areas like budgeting and planning, programing, diversity, insurance, partnerships, staff management, and board versus staff accountabilities.
Fourth, consider the difference between "planning" and "plans." I first heard about the concept of planning as opposed to plans several years ago, when I moderated a panel on "Letting Go of Dead Ideas" at an Independent Sector conference. The Monitor Institute's Dana O'Donovan shared the idea that strategic plans are dead and strategy must take its place — in a more iterative process, rather than a three- to five-year plan in a thick binder. We share this orientation with our own Junior League leaders at many of the leadership development conferences we hold each year.
We have also tried to be very purposeful in separating and defining the appropriate role for our board — to be strategic and take the long view of the organization. Strategic boards need not be large, but they do need to embrace the role of strategic planners.
Fifth, be people-centric. William Bridges also asserts that change is more factual, while transition is psychological. Therefore, understanding the needs and wants of those we work with in times of change (which is all the time) is more important than ever. So, while we can't read the minds of our volunteers, as organizations that rely on volunteers, we still need to understand what they want. And what people in general want today are customized experiences that fit their time and interests. In our own organization (which encompasses two hundred and ninety-two independent Junior Leagues that see changes in their volunteer leadership and virtually every committee leadership position every year), volunteers can now tell their leaders what they are interested in and when they are available, and it then becomes the individual Junior League's responsibility to work with them to maximize their volunteering opportunities.
Being people-centric also means communicating with both leaders and volunteers in ways that makes it possible for them to embrace change. The days when a leadership transition meant handing over a notebook are dead and gone. Today there are group shares, Google docs, and other technologies and tools to capture and transfer information for those who come next. In our organization, for example, harnessing technology and creating ways for easy knowledge transfer and sharing has literally meant dedicating days to cleaning up electronic files and putting in place a system where files are shared. (I know, it sounds crazy!)
Are these all the ideas needed to manage internal change in a complex nonprofit organization (particularly one that relies on volunteers across a wide base of affiliates)? Not at all. Managing internal change will always be a challenge. But how effectively we, as nonprofit leaders, manage that change and transition absolutely will have an impact on the ability of our organizations to advance their missions.
Susan Danish is executive director of The Association of Junior Leagues International, Inc.She is vice chair of the board of the National Human Services Assembly and treasurer of the board of the National Women's History Museum and serves on the Nominating Committee for the International Association for Volunteer Effort.