Nonprofits Are Ready to Take the Plunge

main.jpg“Action and reaction, ebb and flow, trial and error, change—this is the rhythm of living. Out of our over-confidence, fear; out of our fear, clearer vision and fresh hope. And out of hope, progress.” —Bruce Barton

In the spirit of the New Year, change is on our minds, in the form of resolutions and goals. Nonprofit organizations and staff are thinking about it, as we map out the next fiscal or programming year.

We want 2012 to be better, to be more successful, and to operate more efficiently, through our use of better practices. In order to make the year better, we need to be better. We need to excel and improve, and to improve, we need to adapt, to evolve. Luckily, humans are equipped to do just that.

Adaobi Okolue brings up some excellent points as to why the nonprofit sector may resist innovation. After attending the same workshop she attended before writing her post, I was ready to stand 100% behind her thinking -- that is, until I attended a staff development meeting on adaptive leadership.

There, I learned that innovation demands new strategies and adaptive leadership (leading through challenges) to mobilize the new ideas. They will not be successful otherwise.

Blogs are intended to spark conversation and raise questions, so I am going to do just that. (Thanks for the opportunity to engage in conversation with you, Ada!)

But first, I need to start with a couple of definitions[1] that will clarify my viewpoint:

  • Change (v): to make something different
  • Innovate (v): to introduce something new, e.g., a new idea, method, or device
  • Adapt (v): to make fit (as for a new use), often by modification

Ada hit the nail on the head, when she said that change is perpetual and therefore innovation is constant. But I think she sells nonprofit professionals short, by claiming nonprofits resist change. 

As Marty Linsky explains in this TEDx Talk video, humans do not fear change itself—we fear the loss associated with change. He further describes this in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: “People are not stupid. People love change, when they know it is a good thing. When change involves real or potential loss, people hold on to what they have and resist the change.”[2]  

We all know change is inevitable, and I think nonprofits are used to changing how they operate because of external and environmental shifts.

By using the definitions above, I want to take that notion further and say that nonprofits do not fear innovation. Innovation is simply the process of introducing something new. If the funding climate changes, then nonprofits have to introduce new strategies in order to reach their financial goals. And as long as the strategies evoke positive change, there isn’t fear.

Let’s use this example from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership to explain the difference between change and loss: a lottery winner will not return a winning ticket. This is a dramatic change, and the winner and his circle are naturally excited. Let’s add a loss: the lottery winner is a nonprofit executive director who now wants to retire. People are still excited; however, the organization’s staff fears the loss that might occur. If they lose their executive director to retirement, they may experience organizational shifts. The organization resists the potential loss, a loss that will require the organization to adapt.

Leading through change is extremely complex, and I encourage you to explore adaptive leadership further. In the meantime, here are a few easy ways young professionals can help the sector to move forward with change, to take innovative risks, and to learn to adapt:

  • Reframe your state of mind. Get rid of the adage that “people resist change.” Instead, use the framework that “people resist loss.” This opens a welcoming door through which change can enter.
  • Allow time and space for open discussions. Fear stems from the unknown. Discussion allows staff to gather facts, form opinions, and express concerns in a safe environment.
  • Acknowledge and reiterate the human capacity to adapt. Humans have adapted for thousands of years, despite the challenges we face. Even if a change results in a loss, there is solidarity in knowing we are capable of adjusting and adapting in a new environment.

How does your organization prepare for and view change? What other ways can you help your organization adapt?


[1]Merriam Webster Dictionary.

[2]Heifetz, Ronald. Alexander Grashow. Marty Linsky. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World. p. 22.

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