Thursday, February 19, 2015

Meeting New Needs Through Organizational Change

In a world where demands on the nonprofit sector shift rapidly, it seems counterintuitive that many organizational structures remain so resistant to change. As Donna Butts, Executive Director of Generations United, notes, the distinct goal of nonprofits is to serve a dynamic client population, and yet many nonprofits lack the mechanisms to adapt to changing needs (Gowdy, Hildebrand, La Piana, & Mendes Campos, 2009). Why is it, then, that necessary organizational changes are so difficult to implement? Several major reasons include:

  • Staff burnout. When employees are already overwhelmed with responsibilities, overworked, or frustrated by previous organizational failures, it can be incredibly difficult to introduce new, additional responsibilities needed to implement change.
  • Organizational politics. In deciding on the next best step for an organization, egos can collide, leading to a lack of consensus.
  • Lack of effective planning. As Gallup Manager Leong Chee Tung reports, “Poorly defined objectives, milestones that seem impossible, and metrics that are unclear or not objective can further complicate a change process.”
  • Unnecessary bureaucratic impediments. Effective change cannot be fully realized unless leadership is able to “speed decision cycles, move information through the organization, provide quick and effective feedback, and evaluate and reward managers on qualities such as openness, candor, and self-confidence” (Tichy & Charan, 1989, p. 114).

Despite these obstacles, it is clear that change is needed. As this ever-transforming nonprofit landscape continues to evolve, organizations must ensure that they have mechanisms in place to respond to contextual change and, subsequently, adapt to meet the challenges of emerging needs and demands. All of this, of course, begs the question: what exactly can leaders do to successfully drive organizational change? Fortunately, there are multiple successful strategies available for implementation, as outlined below:

1. Implement a strategic planning process. The strategic planning process defines detailed steps for developing a results-based accountability system (Bryson, 2010). Through a collaborative process, organizations are able to: a) define their organizational mission and vision, b) assess the planning environment, c) define strategic issues, d) complete probability and impact analyses, and, e) implement, monitor, and evaluate new action steps, agendas, and policies (2010). This process helps to minimize political differences, increase staff buy-in, and move beyond prior frustrations.

2. Promote diversity. Research clearly demonstrates that diverse groups and organizations had advantages over homogenous ones (Cox, Lobel, & McLeod, 1991; Mandell & Kohler-Gray, 1990). One particular advantage of a diverse organization is that diversity promotes creativity, driving dynamic, innovative strategies for new approaches to implementing change (Cox, 1994). Promoting diversity within organizations ensures that a variety of perspectives are brought to the table, thereby decreasing the likelihood that potential solutions to organizational stagnation will be overlooked.

3. Cultivate transformational leadership. Using Cameron’s (1991) Model of Transformational Leadership, individuals within organizations can create a readiness for change by implementing specific steps, such as comparing performance with standards, instituting symbolic events, and creating a common language.

4. Develop approaches based on strategic intent. Through the utilization of Hamel and Prahalad’s (1989) Model of Strategic Intent, leaders can establish criterion for: charting organizational progress, focusing the organization’s attention on succeeding, motivating employees, encouraging individual/team contributions, sustaining enthusiasm, and becoming increasingly intentional in resource allocation.

5. Invest in streamlining communication and feedback mechanisms. All too often, organizational change is fettered by a lack of efficiency in inter-organizational communication and feedback. It is crucial that leaders develop and implement communication and feedback loops to eliminate unnecessary bureaucratic lag (Tichy & Charan, 1989).

When each of these steps is implemented with fidelity, leaders will become better equipped to meet the rapidly changing challenges and demands of the nonprofit sector.


Bryson, J. M. (2010). Strategic Planning and the Strategic Change Cycle. In D. O. Renz (Ed.), The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management (230-261).  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cameron, K. (1991). Transformational leadership. In Developing Management Skills. New York: Harper-Collins.

Cox, T. H. (1994). Diversity in organizations: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco, CA: Berrett Koehler Publishers.

Cox, T. H., Lobel, S. A., & McLeod, P. L. (1991). Effects of ethnic group cultural differences on cooperative and competitive behavior on a group task. The Academy of Management Journal, 34(4), 827-847.

Gowdy, H., Hildebrand, A., La Piana, D., & Mendes Campos, M. (2009). Convergence: How five trends will reshape the social sector. In James Irvine Foundation: NonprofitNext.

Hamel, G. & Prahalad, C. K. (1989). Strategic intent. Harvard Business Review.

Mandell, B. & Kohler-Gray, S. (1990). Management development that values diversity. Personnel, 67(3).

Tichy, N. & Charan, R. (1989). Speed, simplicity, self-confidence. Harvard Business Review.