Advancement Leader’s Guide to Change Management

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s transformative, but it’s rarely easy. Change management is a critical component of the change process that ensures the successful implementation of organizational change

Good leaders know they need to manage change properly for the best results. But change management is about much more than planning and communication. Operational change has to be matched by behavioral change at the individual and organizational levels. Developing change management skills is crucial to managing change effectively.

Whether you’re introducing a new software platform, using new technologies, implementing a new donor cultivation process, or restructuring your organization, you need to manage the change proactively for long-term success. In this post, we cover five key strategies you should put in place to make for a smooth and successful transition, using a structured approach to change management.

Connect the Change to a Purpose

You need buy-in from every member of your team to implement change successfully. People aren’t so much afraid of change as they’re afraid of uncertainty. When you ask your team to start doing things differently, you need to tell them why. Providing a clear strategic vision is essential for the success of your change initiative.

When you connect the change to a broader purpose, you’re telling your team that they’re part of a solution. If you can tie the transformational change to positive outcomes in their day-to-day work —less administrative overhead, more cross-team collaboration — they’re more likely to get on board and help build momentum. Embracing change is easier when it's aligned with the organization's vision.

Conversely, if they don’t understand why the change is necessary, they’ll fall back on old habits and ways of doing things. Some might actively resist the change, which ends up creating friction and lowering team morale. Overcoming resistance to change is a crucial step in the change management process.

You’ve probably seen a version of the “change curve” somewhere along the way in your career. This model illustrates how low morale is a common part of the change experience — but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part to monitor progress and keep morale from dipping. Monitoring progress and adjusting your change management strategy as needed is essential.

Check out this model below:

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath talk about “motivating the elephant” when trying to change behavior. The elephant in question represents our emotional self, and it’s the part of us that drives action and gets things done. If you can tap into the way your new team member already thinks and works, and the passion they bring to their work, by tying the change to something they care about, you can inject enthusiasm into your initiative from the outset to move it forward. Generating short-term wins is a key component of a successful change management model.

Set Expectations

The outcome you want to achieve with your change program should be unambiguous. You don’t just need to communicate the “why,” you also have to spell out what the end goal looks like and how you’ll get there. If you don’t, confusion will quickly turn into inertia. Clearly defining key performance indicators is crucial for tracking the success of your change projects and initiatives.

In Switch, the authors talk about “scripting the critical moves” to make change less scary and more manageable. When you’re asking people to start doing things differently, you should lay out the behaviors or activities required to make the change a success. By doing so, you not only remove barriers, but you set expectations around responsibilities and outcomes. A structured approach to change management includes scripting the critical moves in your implementation process.

Try to tie these “critical moves” to activities that your team performs often. Nothing builds a habit like repetition, and the more embedded the change is in their day-to-day work, the sooner it becomes the default. Incremental change is often more effective than trying to implement significant change all at once.

For example, if your department is merging with (or absorbing) another group, make sure you include new team members in your daily or weekly status meetings, and add their items to your agenda. Or if you’re implementing new online donation and registration form software, get your team to leverage the capabilities of the new system as soon as possible — such as using system-generated analytics to report on campaign progress. (Pairing people up is also a great way to reinforce the learning).

While the responsibility for implementing change may ultimately lie with you, it’s important to make everyone personally responsible for their participation and implementation. Develop a sense of accountability that makes everyone responsible for their future, as well as the future of the organization. Providing professional development opportunities for your team members to implement desired skills is vital.

Be Available and Visible

As positive as some change may be, it still represents the unknown — at least at first. What do we do when we’re faced with the unfamiliar and aren’t sure how to proceed? We look around for cues to reassure us that things are still okay. Your management and leadership style can significantly impact how your team perceives and supports the change.

As a leader, you need to be visible and accessible when managing your organization through major change. You should make yourself available for questions, even if you don’t have all the answers. Nothing breeds anxiety like uncertainty, and if your team doesn’t believe that someone is in charge and is steering the ship, confidence will start to ebb away. Providing guidance and support is essential for managing change successfully.

Of course, it doesn’t have to fall on your shoulders to implement the change alone. You should engage your extended leadership team (or team members who play key roles) early on in the process to ensure you have help in addressing issues that arise as the change is rolled out. Leveraging the other leaders in your organization creates broader support, and expands your ability for communication outreach efforts. Engaging key stakeholders in the change process is vital.

This is especially important if your change impacts people outside your immediate organization. For example, if your advancement office is part of your school’s alumni organization, your stakeholders might include alumni volunteers as well as in-office staff. Having other people in positions of responsibility available to address questions or concerns from any of your stakeholders will help you reach everyone.

Create an Environment for Learning

While communication is critical during periods of major change, town halls and email blasts alone won’t get people engaged and fired up about your initiative. Building a volunteer army of change agents is a valuable strategy to enable action.

Consider hosting more informal meetings to discuss what you’re doing and how it will impact the organization. “Lunch and learn” sessions for smaller groups are more relaxed environments and a great forum for team members to ask questions and share their learnings as the change is rolled out.

You also need to make sure that your team has the required skills to achieve the change you’re looking for. Change initiatives can flounder when expectations don’t match skill sets. If you’re bringing in new technology, for example, your team will need training. Implementing the change effectively involves providing the necessary human resources and training.

Building collaboration into the change process is far more effective than a purely directive approach. Getting people to work together in pairs or small teams as they adapt to the new model will help internalize the change more quickly — and amplify the change. Effective change management often involves creating a culture of collaboration.

Assess and Adapt

To borrow a military phrase, “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” In other words, you should be prepared to adjust your plan of execution if you find that your new initiative is not taking hold the way you planned. Overcoming resistance and making necessary adjustments in your execution is essential.

But first, you need to establish a system for assessing your progress. Don’t focus solely on the end objective and what it’s supposed to look like. Instead, break down timelines and define smaller, measurable outcomes that will tell you whether or not your plan is on track. Holding regular check-ins with your team to get a sense of how well implementation is going (and if it’s unfolding as expected) is a key part of the change management process.

When defining your success metrics, try to focus on quick wins and achievable first steps. Success has a way of creating momentum, and that will be critical to keeping things going when the going gets tougher.

Beware of unspoken resistance. An inconsistent application of new behaviors or business processes can kill the momentum for change. Identifying problems early will give you a chance to course-correct and make necessary adjustments in your execution — whether that’s tweaking a new process or addressing employee resistance to the change.

Remember, Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day 

Everyone knows that change doesn't happen overnight. And that's OK. Managing change in a large company or within an organization often requires patience and persistence.

When it comes to implementing change in an organization, progress may seem slow at first. But real and lasting change comes from consistent and persistent effort, put in over a sustained period. As long as you tie the need for change back to a purpose that your entire team can get behind, and provide clear direction on how to get there, you can move your organization to where it needs to be. Sustaining acceleration in the change process is essential for long-term success.

Transformational change can be a long road, but it's worth getting it right. Change initiatives often face challenges, but with the right change management model and strategies in place, you can ensure that the change sticks and benefits your organization in the long run.