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How to Create Enthusiasm for Change

As the executive director, you must introduce every new idea you can to your board.  Without more innovation, it will be difficult to keep up with the changing needs of your clients, donors, and community.  It will also be difficult for your nonprofit to stay ahead of the competition.  The long-term sustainability of you nonprofit and the perceived relevance of your mission also depend on your next innovation.

If you try to introduce an innovation, new idea, or experiment (change) to your nonprofit’s board, each of the individuals in the room will adopt one of five positions.  Each individual’s response depends on how you present your innovation, new idea, or experiment.

Opposer – Every change disrupts the norm.  If an individual is unable to see a benefit, their first reaction is to oppose the change.  After all, any change without a benefit implies a sacrifice.

The perceived significance of the sacrifice determines how large the benefit must be.  If the individual perceives the sacrifice as minor, you may be able to suppress his or her opposition by simply pointing out the benefit to your nonprofit, mission, or clients.  The success of that approach also depends on how passionate they are about those three.

It is also important to consider the perceived risk of the innovation.  Each board member’s reputation depends on making good decisions.  Therefore, it is necessary to counterbalance high risk with high reward if you want to avoid opposition.

Their opposition is unintentional.  It is driven by the concern that something is better than the proposed change even if they are unable to articulate what the alternative might be.

Neutral – If the perceived benefits only eliminate opposition, you have a disengaged board member.  If asked to vote they will abstain.  They are unlikely to offer any support (advice, advocacy, funding, etc.).  If they offer any support it will be a token.  If the path forward turns bumpy, their support will probably evaporate and they may join the opposition.  With careful communications, it is possible to sustain their neutrality and sometimes move them into the ranks of the supporters.  As momentum and success builds, increasing their support becomes easier if they see an increase in the benefits they value.

Supporter – They see enough benefits to be willing to support the change.  They are somewhere between neutral and excited.  They require the same cultivation as the Neutrals.  The one exception is that they are less skeptical about success so they are easier to cultivate.

Sponsor – They believe that the change will be highly beneficial.  They believe the benefits extend beyond their personal interests.  They see the bigger picture and are willing to help others see what they see.  They need to be supported with the anecdotes, examples, and data that continue to support and encourage their confidence and assumptions.  The examples can be past changes within your nonprofit or externally that are similar to the proposed change that were successful.

Promoter – They are passionate about the change.  They are fully engaged and believe the change will make a significant difference for your nonprofit, clients, and community.  They are able to envision a new future being created by the change.  All you need to do is channel their efforts and provide them with anecdotes, examples, and data.

The ideal result of any presentation of change is to have a group of Promoters.  While having 51% of the board in the Neutral to Promoter camps is sufficient to receive approval, it is probably inadequate to ensure success.  Unless you are confident that 80% of the board is in the Support to Promote camps, Mission Enablers recommends you table the proposal until you have a higher level of support.

Change is always an uneven process.  Therefore, it is easy for the early support to falter when the first few problems arise.  This is the time when the Sponsors and Promoters are most valuable.  You need a sufficient number of them to bolster the spirits of the rest of the board and ensure that more than 60% of the board are always Supporter or above.  When support drops below 60% it is easy for many of the members to step back and reflect on the probability of success.  It takes the majority’s confidence and enthusiasm to drive through the rough periods, especially early when the successes are small and widely spaced.

Next Step:

Have a compelling description of the change that needs to be made including the benefits for the clients, community, and your nonprofit along with the risks, duration, impact, and costs associated with the change

Preview the change with each board member (one-on-one or in small groups) to ensure you have minimized the number of Opposing and Neutral members

Speak with board members who are most likely to be Promoters first

Take a Promoter with you to meet with those who are likely to be Opposed or Neutral

Ensure you have deep and broad support before asking the board to vote

If you are unable to find the breadth and depth of support you want, think about breaking the change into smaller pieces.  This will mitigate the risk, time, and significances of the change.  It will make it easier to overcome opposition.  Each piece will become a steppingstone on the path.  Each successful step forward will make it easier to gain support for the next step, which will make it possible for each subsequent step to be larger than its predecessor.

Whether it is one large change or many small steps, your mission, clients, and community need you to successfully make the change with broad, deep, and enthusiastic board support.

Take It Further:

Use the same process for gathering donor support for each of your proposed changes

Remember that one project’s Promoter may be the next project’s Opposition because everyone’s priorities, goals, and expectations are shifting

Recheck with every board member periodically throughout the change process since priorities, goals, and expectations are constantly changing

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