5 Questions to Ask During Times of Change

unnamedBy Steven J. Goldberg

Change can be exciting. It can also be difficult, especially if your nonprofit is in the midst of a leadership transition, a realignment of its organizational goals, a restructuring of its staff … or all of the above.

Organizations say that they want to make a change, but are often not prepared for its implications. Others implement a change, and are later dissatisfied with the outcome.

Building the groundwork for successful change begins with thinking strategically and carefully about change. Before your board begins planning or initiating change, it must work with key leadership to first evaluate the current state of your organization, and then to define and agree upon what needs to change so that the organization can be more effective.

Here are five questions to guide your board’s decision-making.

1. How is the need for change articulated?

The moment the conversations about change begin, it’s easy to nitpick about everything that might be wrong with an organization. This is counterproductive. When you ask your leadership about what needs to change in your organization, pay attention to how people respond. Do you hear a lot of “This doesn’t work,” “That leader wasn’t any good,” “This is terrible” or “That was a bad idea” from your team? You will need to dig deeper to determine how serious an issue is, and how it impacts your mission. For example, if you think that your organization needs to do more to achieve growth, be clear about what it should be doing more of. Discuss the type of talent and skills that you will need to address those issues. The goal is to create a dialogue that is constructive and not wrangled in a series of complaints.

2. Does change align with the needs of your organization and community?

Many organizations romanticize the idea of hiring a change agent during a leadership transition. Your desire for change should align with your nonprofit’s needs. Think about the leadership styles, attitudes and behaviors that your staff and board will need from a prospective leader to feel inspired and invigorated to achieve their best work. The population that your mission supports should also be in the forefront. You may need to conduct a community assessment to identify key opportunities and challenges. This can help you to determine what changes must be made to serve your community better.

3. Are you closing a gap?

Change can give your leadership an opportunity to address issues that are preventing the organization from achieving success. What’s not happening that should be happening to bring key initiatives further along? That can be anything from securing media placements to establishing systems to track your impact. Sourcing talent experienced with executing solutions to your organization’s challenges is a major component in closing a gap that might be affecting your organization’s advancement.

4. Do you have the resources to support changeand failure?

Don’t underestimate the cost of change. In many cases, an organization’s needs outweigh the resources it has to address those needs. That’s why it’s important to invest your resources in changes that will be worthwhile. Having the flexibility to fail is a luxury that few organizations have. Still, as you prepare for success, you should also prepare for contingencies. Decide if you can afford to fail at change without it affecting your bottom line. Do you have a budget for change? Change might include a number of expenses such as working with a consultant to assess services, providing professional development opportunities or planning a retreat to get staff on board.

5. What is your organization prepared to give up or lose?

In order for change to be successful, you might have to relinquish certain ideas, programs and people. Be aware of the emotional connections that your leadership is holding on to that might be preventing it from moving forward into a brighter future, from methods of the past that no longer work, to current talent that lack the skills you need to address new challenges. What if making a change requires layoffs or cuts? Change can result in a fall-out. Are you ready for a total overhaul? More importantly, what are you prepared to lose in order to gain the outcomes your leadership is seeking? These are difficult discussions that your board should not bypass during times of change.

Steven J. Goldberg is a consultant at DRG. He has more than 25 years of experience working in the volunteer, health and human services and faith-based sectors, having spent the past 17 years as a senior nonprofit executive. He has a proven track record of leading successful change, strengthening leadership infrastructure and improving governance within complex mission-driven environments. He also has extensive experience as a key partner and advisor to Boards, Board Presidents and Executive Committees.