Disruption … Can “Change” Happen Without It?

It is much more fun to be Mr. Nice Guy, to get all those ego strokes when, at the end of a speech, consultation, meeting [pick one or more], everyone tells you how great you were. Everyone goes away smiling and satisfied. – especially you.

It is much more challenging when, to do your job well, you know that those strokes are not going to be easy to come by: – when the group, the foundation, the organization, the individuals needs to change…. when the circumstance is such that continuing doing what they have been doing is simply not the best option.

Lots of people talk the “change” talk; very few want to walk the “change” walk. It is hard, humbling, disconcerting, uncomfortable – and that is just the beginning. Yet there are times when, to do the job we are asked or paid to do, no other approach is authentic, honest, or effective.

It happened again last week. A few months ago, I was asked to shake up the senior staff and entire board of a very well respected, sufficiently funded, and admirably led nonprofit organization. All of this had been going on for so long that a very self-satisfied ethos pervaded. And deservedly so. The CEO had a reputation that most could only envy. The organization was strong and its pockets were deep enough that, during these difficult financial times, they comfortably absorbed numerous more fragile ones in their field.

Yet quietly there was a growing recognition that the organization had not addressed succession, it had not adjusted its board make-up or function to its new larger and more complex size; it had sidestepped planning for a changing financial model necessitated by government cutbacks. On the one hand the ceo and the organization’s top volunteer leadership acknowledged these things – but on the other, no one wanted to disrupt or challenge or publicly question the success of what got them there.

I was brought in to do exactly that. To facilitate a retreat and to shake things up. It was choreographed in great detail, but, truth be told, the ceo kept changing his mind – even during the retreat itself, a reliably good sign of his own ambivalence.

The day went largely as planned, but predictably not everyone was thrilled. My post retreat reviews were not the effusive ego building type. And the organization kept telling me that they hadn’t had much of a chance to process what had happened. Oh, well. I thought – what can one do? Chalk it up. Not every gig is a winner.

Last week, though, I found myself at a conference and someone whom I vaguely recognized came up to me. She told me that she had recently been appointed to a new coo position at that organization as part of a succession plan; that the senior professional staff was being given new portfolios, that the role of the long time ceo was redefined, and that the board structure was being revised. More pointedly [from my perspective], this person pointed to that retreat as awakening the need to ask the really hard questions which led to these changes.

Hmm – I guess I did what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to disrupt the status quo in such a way to lead to positive change. I doubt, though, these many months later, there will be a subsequent review telling me how effective I was. But there you have it.

I could tell similar stories – for example, about another very well-known organization which exists today only because I was willing to disrupt its own self-identity and self perception – something that a progression of other outside consultants were never able or willing to do. Its board was comprised of some bold-faced names, its ceo was stridently wedded to the past, its programs were as dated as the ceo’s perspectives. It wasn’t easy and required all the finesse that years of experience provided. I did my job. My role is relegated to a footnote in history – but this organization clearly would not exist today were it not for that disruptive intervention.

You may ask: since my work is restricted to funders and foundations, why was I working directly on the strategies of nonprofit organizations such as these? The answer is because philanthropist clients had asked me to do so. They had experienced how I had helped their family foundations deal with very difficult transitions. And since they saw similar problems in organization they were funding, they asked me to do the same for their grantees. [It happens quite a lot.]

If effecting change within nonprofit organizations is sometimes hard, family foundations are often the hardest assignments. Especially in families, feelings are close to the surface, legacy is personal, ownership is surely not a management concept, and empowerment comes from the last name, not an executive decision. Even when contracted to bring about constructive change, doing so in such settings can make the previous two examples little more than child’s play. In the hardest such cases, I have walked away knowing that not everyone liked what I had to do. But when told, months or even years later that my work led to permanent constructive changes, I was sure that my disruptions were the right – indeed the only – way to go.

I like to think that I am good at what I do, but I am certainly not the only one who is. What these anecdotes illustrate is that sometimes, perhaps more than we acknowledge, the only way to bring about changes which matter is to be disruptive. And those who are willing to risk annoyance, anger, push back, and resistance are likely to be the ones who do it best.

In recent years, we hear the term “disruptive philanthropy” quite a lot. [I don’t know who first coined the phrase – not surprisingly, there are several who make that claim.] The idea is: If what we were doing or funding was working, then our social welfare or education problems would be solved. If we keep doing and funding what we have been doing and funding, we shouldn’t be surprised when the same results ensue. Only by being disruptive of the status quo can change – of approach and results – actually happen. The best philanthropy, therefore, is the kind that funds real change and not the status quo.

Disruption, though, has a cost. There are feelings, there are risks, there are careers, there is funding, there is history or legacy, there is reputation. Not every person, foundation, organization [or business] is willing to take those risks. And not every advisor, consultant, or executive is willing to put his or her own income and popularity on the line.

A very successful consultant I know of gets more business than anyone. In many years of consulting, I have never seen any of his reports challenge the status quo. The organizations which hire him, I suspect, don’t really want to change. They do want a report that makes them feel vindicated in their leadership, their approach and their program. Oh, a few modest adaptations here and there for good measure, but the essence of what they will do in the future will not be very different from what they have done in the past. I will leave to others to decide if they were well served. Surely there was no disruption, and no meaningful change. Perhaps that was indeed the right way to go. Perhaps not. [By the way, I am not critical of the consultant; he does exactly what his clients pay him to do.]

Another example: In the current environment: Many organizations do recognize that something has to change. They know that the world has changed, that younger people relate to needs and organizations differently, that funding streams are not reliable, and that they are perceived to be yesterday’s news.

Too many, though, assume that it is only a question of their marketing and branding. Most funders are getting a bit tired of the plaint: “If only people really knew what we do, they would of course support us. We are the best kept secret….” They assume that their brand – that is their public persona, is the problem. Nothing that cannot be fixed with twitter followers, a facebook page, perhaps a blog. This would make an otherwise established and stodgy organization hip. But most of us on the funder side know that rebranding is not “change”. Change, meaningful change, is not a new logo or a new aggressive on-line presence; meaningful change means that something deeper has changed – the old way of doing things or seeing things or directing things or funding things has been disrupted.

Which brings us back to our theme – disruption. Not everything that exists or which deserves funding needs to be changed. But for those who believe in social change, who recognize that some organizations or societal problems – or some foundations – should simply not be doing business as usual should embrace “disruption” as an indispensable tool in the arsenal of change.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.

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  1. says

    Thank you Richard for saying what needs to be said. My experience as a consultant mirrors yours. We need to take the risks to be provocative and challenge the status quo when we come in, that is part of the value of a new set of eyes with a combination of seeing for the first time and years of experience.


  2. says

    This is right on the money — well said. To paraphrase my favorite scene in the film “Absence of Malice,” I know how to effect organizational change and I know how not to hurt people. I don’t know how to do both at the same time and neither do you. Like you I work both as an adviser to philanthropists and I also own a company that provides back office support and management services to small and mid sized nonprofit organizations. The simple reality is that change often hurts. Thank you, Richard, for saying what so many are afraid to acknowledge. http://www.domoremission.com

  3. jaynie schultz says

    As always, you have spoken clearly and profoundly. I have considered the idea that as the phrase “risk tolerance” is used with money matters, “change tolerance” could be a useful tool to gauge the future of organizations. If change is built into the culture of a nonprofit such that it need not be completely disruptive, we would all benefit immensely. Thank you for opening this door.

  4. Stephen Bisk says

    The idea is: If what we were doing or funding was working, then our social welfare or education problems would be solved – is incorrect. Most of the time there is not the goal, the scope, the funding or the possibility of totally solving the problem. We will always have poverty, dysfunctional people and families, war, famine and natural catastrophe. Someone will always need a job. Someone will always need a loan. Someone will need to deal with trauma – car accident, divorce, molestation will always be a reality. There are few that will ever completely solve the problem we grapple with (polio – almost). The questions to be asked include 1. are we accomplishing and succeeding in our missions; 2. are our successes effective and efficient; 3. can we be doing a better job; 4. is our mission still optimal. When these and other questions indicate the need for internal change, then the discussion becomes the best way to accomplish that change. Most often, in my experience, change is healthier and longer lasting as a process and not disruption. It is constructive to nurture buy-in and circumvent resistance. Mutual understanding and trust are built over time and with successful smaller steps. Too often an “outsider” comes in shooting, and they are in fact shooting from the hip, and perhaps at the wrong target. I find the response of the CEO very natural and healthy – an openness to consider and reconsider over time. It smacks to me as self-righteous and condescending to come in, shake things up, and expect everyone, including the highly capable, successful, experienced CEO who knows things from within, to line up as a new order is presented. Sometimes the funder is wrong and things don’t need to be shaken up at all. Sometimes things need change, but your understanding of what that change should be is not optimal. I would feel much more comfortable if I read of a process where you worked with the CEO and senior staff (and other staff) to 1. come to a mutual understanding that things needed to be changed, and identified specifically what those things were and should be. 2. came to a mutual understanding of what was causing the situation to be suboptimal and what needed to be done to change this. 3. came to a mutual understanding of how to implement this change. Now comes the hard part – getting the change implemented, evaluating that the change was actually implemented and making the necessary adjustments, and determining whether the changes in fact brought the situation to optimal. All of this is generally best done through cooperation (not what was condescendingly referred to as ego stroking) and not disruption, particularly in healthy organizations with capable leadership.

  5. says

    Thanks for the comments. Permit a few words to Mr. Bisk’s comments:

    I do believe there are two key matters which I must have inadequately clarified in this post which was intended to stimulate discussion, not be a complete description of method.
    1. I don’t mean to argue that every organization is in need of major change. And 2. I am profoundly committed to implementing effective change as a part of any consulting or advisory process in which I am involved. In fact, ironically to your critique, the method I have used as an independent consultant in the for profit, the not for profit worlds, and in my philanthropy advising is always built on “implementation.” And implementation requires numerous sets of skills and approaches – most notably aligning organizational culture with organizational strategy. And of course that can never be done without the CEO.

    But let’s be clear that it is not uncommon for the perspectives of the CEO to be part of the problem. [To protect them, I will not give examples from my own work.] How one addresses that requires a good deal of experience and finesse but sometimes cannot be solved simply by building trust.

    And while you are fair in your criticism that my large mega examples may be extreme, the reality is that for many legacy organizations in the non profit world there really are blind spots which don’t lend themselves to internal and incremental adjustment. For those that are well run, responsive and effective, incrementalism may be exactly the way to go, and those blind spots may be sufficiently minor to not be toxic. But when larger institutional change may be called for, their very decision making and governance processes may work against effectively addressing emerging challenges effectively. In those cases, sometimes the only way to get enough people to pay attention is to disrupt. [And then to be prepared to work toward making sure that what emerges is not just change for its own sake but is workable and effective.