Under Construction: Change Management in the Non-Profit Sector

A recent HBR Blog Post on Change Management emphasizes the importance of management Daniel Weinstock capacity to offset the myriad reasons that change management efforts so often fail in business. So why does change management similarly fail in nonprofit and human service organizations? Given the critical needs that these organizations try to meet, what gets in the way of their ability to respond most effectively and efficiently to the evolving realities of the people they are trying to serve? A few key realities often come into play

Who Is the Client?

Mission-driven and human service entities are established with a guiding purpose – to most effectively respond to the needs of the population(s) they serve. The guiding question should always be, “How are we operating in the best interests of our clients/to most effectively meet our mission?” However, too often, as organizations evolve over time, adding service delivery strands, layers of management, and/or back office functions, the needs and interests of people within the organization subsume those of the clients. Healthy organizations need to ensure that they are meeting the needs of the people that are working to meet the needs of the clients – but not at the expense of the clients themselves. Change management efforts must always be directly tied to effectively addressing the interests of the clients so that everyone affected is asking, “How can I, in my role, ensure that we are best serving our clients/most effectively meeting our mission?” Leaders need to model this, and make sure that it is multi-directional process, so that staff has the time, space, and safety to identify what they need from colleagues all levels of the organization.

Let’s Dig!

An organization’s initial design and infrastructure is an important artifact in change processes. It reflects the context in which the organization was founded. Over time, the organizational structure and the functional tasks for which people are responsible emanate from that original design. It is the dirt roads upon which modern roads were laid, and busy streets now operate. While the need for change is tied to various internal and external factors, it can be helpful for the organization to revisit that early artifact, and examine to what degree the original dirt roads meet the current needs of the organization. Sharing in this archaeological digging can help people recognize that the imperative for change is not tied to any one individual and is not personal – it is tied to processes and practices that date back to the organization’s inception.

“Sharing in this archaeological digging can help people recognize that the imperative for change is not tied to any one individual and is not personal – it is tied to processes and practices that date back to the organization’s inception.”

And depending on the magnitude of the change involved, mere refurbishing of these early roadways will not suffice; new pathways may need to be established and built, and therefore everyone in the organization needs to learn these new traffic patterns together. As Heifitz’ framework of technical versus adaptive change suggests, effective change management – and leadership therein – demands clarity about whether the change entails a technical fix in function, process or role (“if we just repaint the lines, widen this road, add a traffic light, install a bike lane…”) as opposed to more significant overhaul that requires a new way of being from everyone (“we need to dig up our old roads and start anew…”). And, with the latter, people need the time, space, and safety to adjust, try new routes, share mistakes and successes, and develop and adjust roadmaps for the future.

Intent versus Impact

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” builds on the metaphor in the previous point. As leaders promote change, the imperative may be client-, mission-, and/or data-driven, placed in an historical or a future context, or connected to many other variables. All of these may be justified and tied to best intentions for the organization to function most effectively. However, even if the people affected – be they employees or clients – can make and accept that intellectual justification, good intentions only go so far. People have the need to understand, “what does this really mean for me?” They want to know the impact – and need the time, space, and safety to adjust. Leaders need to be transparent about motivations and intentions, and need to be similarly clear about desired impact. However, the pressure will still build as people experience the inevitable gap between intention and impact, aspiration and reality. Providing rest areas and other outlets to release some of this pressure for all impacted by the change is an important consideration in change management.

Organizational change is a process that demands context, clarity, communication, and shared commitment. A main street in Cambridge is under construction, and the message on the digital signs both leading up to and during the construction reads: “Western Ave under construction for 2 years. Seek alternate routes.” I have heard many people scoff at the notice of two years. Yet it has helped to prepare people in advance while continuing to remind everyone that it is ongoing and they may benefit from making a change in their commute. Implied, too, is that it will require everyone’s patience and understanding. For organizational change to succeed, people need to also know why the change is happening and what it will lead to, when, where and how they can give feedback, what the alternate routes entail, with guidance and coaching along the way. They need time, space, and safety to adapt. Organizational leaders can embrace, model and provide these kinds of supports internally to help transition from “under construction” to transformation.

Daniel Michaud Weinstock is an organizational development consultant, coach, and facilitator. He has over 15 years of experience working in and with nonprofit, human service, and educational organizations and systems. He has both led and been a part of organizational change processes, and continues to learn from and celebrate his successes and mistakes. 


It’s gratifying to hear these questions. As a nonprofit director, I have to ask in every decision: “Is this administrative task/staff position/project in the best interests of our clients?” and also “What would it mean to our clients if we DON’T make this administrative move?” Sometimes the less visible backroom work breaks or makes the direct service part everyone sees. You’re right that communicating the link from backroom to service is essential, at every phase of the process!

Posted @ Friday, May 03, 2013 8:54 AM by Jane Hirschi

Very thoughtful and well written.

Posted @ Sunday, May 05, 2013 7:47 AM by Travis Commdore

This is terrific Daniel – some really helpful framing, tools and metaphor that I intend to use with my own clients…

Posted @ Tuesday, May 07, 2013 7:54 PM by Jeremy Phillips