How to Stare Down Organizational Change and Win

September 4, 2019 Jodi McLaughlin & Kara Getkin

Focus on the things you can control.  Easier said than done, right?  The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently reported that 51% of fundraisers plan to leave their current nonprofit within 2 years. When facing these truths as your everyday reality, how do you find space to focus on what you can control and subsequently affect positive change? 

In early 2019, Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh’s Engagement team, one arm of the Advancement and Community Engagement department, lost nearly every mid-level manager.  Not only that, but at the same time we were in a prolonged period of leadership transition.  No time is a good one for broad departures, but we were about to embark on our mid-year annual fund campaign when it happened.  Fast forward 6 months, and we’ve completed our most successful annual fund appeal to date.  We’ve seen an increase in overall response rate, a 73% increase in number of donors to the campaign, and an 85% increase in revenue over last year’s campaign, not to mention having more members than ever.   

It’s not possible, you say? 

It’s easy to focus on the things that have already happened.  That is, after all, the most logical and natural human reaction.  Instead, we challenge you to move beyond what’s happened (the things you can’t control) and look forward by focusing on the things you can control.   

Here are a few action items that we rely on to move beyond inaction towards making positive momentum. 

1. Talk it Out 

In times of organizational transition, keeping conversations open and honest is very important.  Not only is it vital to have these conversations with peers on your leadership team, but it is just as vital, if not more so, to keep open lines of communication with your staff.  It’s obviously not all fine, so don’t pretend it is.  It’s likely that your team is feeling the vacancies in a different, more tangible way than you are.  Find a way that works for your staff to provide open, honest feedback.  Maybe it works for your team to sit in a room together and talk it out.  Or, perhaps a forum for anonymous feedback is best.  You know your staff.  Trust your gut.  

2. Don’t just plug the holes 

If you’ve worked in a nonprofit for more than 5 minutes, it’s likely that you’ve felt like the little boy with your finger stuck in the dam, waiting to be rescued.  While there are cases where this approach can work, we challenge you to take a step back and allow yourself the time and space to truly assess the situation.  Times of departure can be times of great opportunity – the opportunity to ask yourself “What do we really need?” and “What are our priorities?”.  Instead of just plugging the holes and bailing water, maybe what you need to be more effective is some structural reorganization. Refer back to #1.  Consider talking with your staff to see what they think you need most. 

3. Just Do It!

Times of leadership transition can easily lead to excuses – about how we need to hold off on changes until new leadership is in place, why programs are underperforming, and so on and so forth.  Don’t underestimate your capacity.  What do you have control over?  What are you accountable for? Find those areas and make a plan for how to succeed.  Don’t forget to engage your team in the process.  Oftentimes this is where your best ideas will originate. 

Want to learn more about how Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh applied the above three principles to their annual fund challenge? Attend their bbcon session  Shaken, Not Stirred: How to Stare Down Organizational Change and Win. Kara and Jodi will also share how they managed organizational change (institutionally and departmentally) and found success on the other side.  Register today! 

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