Overcoming the Fear of Change in Nonprofits


Intellectually, we all know change can be good. Change is vital for growth and even survival. However, knowing change is beneficial does not necessarily dissipate the fear associated with coming change.

A Nonprofit Afraid of Change

A nonprofit I worked with had a serious case of change anxiety. Like many nonprofits, this organization relied heavily on volunteers to accomplish their day-to-day tasks. Many of the people volunteering there had been doing so for 10, 15, or 20+ years, and while their volunteer retention rate was nothing short of extraordinary, the willingness to change of both the staff and volunteers was severely lacking.

This was evident by the controversy of changing client postcards to enveloped letters for increased client confidentiality. A minor change, envelope for postcard, with benefits for the clients, but a huge headache for management because of the backlash. Did management do something wrong? Or were the volunteers and staff overreacting?

I say both.

Things in this organization never changed. Never changed. So when something even as minor as using envelopes changed, it was a big deal. Management had allowed the organization to become stagnant. Everyone was so focused on getting their tasks done each day that they didn’t stop to think about how to improve their systems, services, or organization.

So while volunteers and staff should have realized that envelopes are not all that much different from postcards, they had not been prepared for any change, no matter how small.

The Next Change

When it came time to develop and implement a new employee evaluation system, how did we prepare the organization for change?

1. Discussed the Benefits of the Change

First, we associated the “change” with improvement, showing how the evaluation system was beneficial for the employees. The evaluations would help employees get accurate feedback on their job performance, recognition for the tasks they are doing well, and opportunities to develop through new certifications and candid conversation about their career goals. We ensured employees understood that this “change” would benefit them both now and in the long run. 

2. Involved Employees in the Change

Second, we involved employees in the process in any way we could. Developing their position descriptions required interviews with the staff, and staff reviews of the descriptions to ensure they accurately reflected their day-to-day tasks. To develop the evaluations, employees were asked what they viewed as most essential to the job in the areas of knowledge, relationships, and professionalism, and were allowed to give feedback on the evaluations before the system was implemented. As they had an active role in the change process, there was less fear of a “top-down” change. 

3. Encouraged Open Communication

Third, we fostered an atmosphere of open communication. People were allowed to ask questions, and received honest answers, even when the answer was “I don’t know, but I will find out.” Concerns were heard and addressed, and the fear of the unknown was diminished through open communication.

While there was still some nervousness circulating about the change, the fear of change and unwillingness to change had subsided. I think these tactics can help any organization prepare for change, not just organizations that have been historically stagnant.

Preparing Your Organization For Change

To prepare your staff and volunteers for change in your organization, you can follow these three steps:

  1. Discuss the benefits of the change for the staff/volunteers.
  2. Involve the staff/volunteers in the change process before it is implemented.
  3. Allow for and encourage open and honest communication regarding the staff/volunteers questions and concerns about the change.

Do you have other ideas for overcoming the fear of change in organizations? Please share your experiences in the comments!

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