8 Tips for Getting Your University or Nonprofit Organization to Embrace Change

Let’s face it: change is usually hard for everyone. Yet, in light of the competitive pressures facing colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations, both the need for productive change and the pace of change are growing rapidly. Some observers have even argued that constant change is the new normal for institutions in every sphere of life.

Change is especially hard for mission-driven organizations. This is in part because they have complex matrices of stakeholders, and they depend upon faculty, staff, and volunteers who believe fiercely in the mission and culture. These organizations also exist, as a colleague of mine once astutely observed, not only to break new ground and challenge the status quo but also to preserve and document the past. The sense of tradition runs deep.

Despite these inherent challenges, change management is a well understood field and there are widely documented best practices for motivating even complex, mission-driven organizations to make bold and dramatic changes. Here are 8 approaches that scholars of change recommend and that I have seen work well in my own practice.

  1.  Bold ideas often win more support from leadership than incremental ones, and they’re more inspiring to donors, too.
  2.  Understand who makes the decision, who influences it, and who has veto power. Engage individually with all key players and explain how the proposed change advances their goals.
  3. Communicate clearly the rationale for the change. Rely on research and data wherever possible, but also don’t be afraid to tell an emotional story. Facts alone rarely motivate people.
  4. Engage key stakeholder groups and really listen. Their ideas may improve the plan. Even if they tell you things you’ve already thought of, you can show how the final plan reflects their input, which dramatically increases buy-in.
  5. Find early champions and have them sweep the organization along in a tide of enthusiasm.
  6. Spend some quality time with the biggest opponents of a proposed change. Often they just want to be respected and heard.
  7. As you recruit for open positions, be strategic about the qualities and skills you need to support the change.
  8. Be intentional about what behaviors you reward. Visibly celebrate successes, both large and small.

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