It’s a classic saying - “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. Change is such a constant in the nonprofit world, it’s…well…constant. And yet, at the same time, it’s also true that beyond all imposed change, we’re typically unlikely to actively look for ways to change.
If your response to change includes reasoning along the lines of “but this is how we’ve always done things”, then I encourage you to ask yourself some hard questions, beginning with:
- Is what you’re doing working?
It may very well be working, but are you sure? An attitude of defensiveness towards the idea of even asking the question begs a corollary to the above reasoning, which is just as dangerous a presumption. That is, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. To this I ask you:
- How do you know it ain’t broke?
Isn’t it ironic how hard we’ll work to keep something the same if we don’t want it to change? We can fight against all reason until reason finally prevails. This resistance can serve a purpose - change for change’s sake is never a good idea or productive. But it behooves us all to occasionally pause, even when things are going seemingly well, and ask the two questions above.
The times when things are going well can be excellent moments to evaluate why something’s working because, just as we learn from failure, we can learn as much from success. Asking these questions helps us identify what’s leading to and can sustain the success, as well as making sure that the success is as real as we believe it to be. For example, you may consider it a huge success to find a new volunteer recruitment source and have an influx of applications. However, if few to none of those applicants are a fit for the roles you’re recruiting for, it may not be the success it appears to be.
How do you know when it’s time to change? This could be change such as changing jobs, careers, personal habits or circumstances or even your morning routine. Here are some questions to help you determine if now is the right time to consider a change:
Are there any recent or planned future changes? Whether it’s a change in team members, processes or goals, take the time to determine where things are at - good, bad and ugly - so that as you progress through the change, you’ll see the evolution. This can relate to everything from donation levels when a key relationship holder leaves or as a newer staff person build/rebuilds those relationships.
Have your goals changed? Big or small, changes to goals can require significant changes in strategy, tactics and tracking in order to reach the new target. Perhaps your numbers are showing you’re either tracking behind or well against goal milestones. Why is that? What can you do differently to turn it around or embed what’s going right into standard practice?
Has something been consistent or in place a long time? These situations are ripe for innovations and changes because you have a strong baseline of history and typically strong standardized practices in place that can be played with.
How are you feeling? Comfortable? If so, now may be the exact time to switch things up! There’s nothing better than change to push you out of your comfort zone and open yourself to different ways or doing and being.
Knowing when it’s time to change is very helpful. Even more so is ingraining in yourself a proactive exploration of change. Those people who are constantly exploring the new and novel have always appealed to me. To be clear, I’m not talking about jumping blindly from idea to idea without waiting to see if anything works or even giving things time to begin working. The people who fascinate me are tinkerers - people constantly tweaking as they search for enhancements, innovations and new solutions to what most didn’t even consider a problem. How does one go about developing the skills of making proactive changes? It may very well be in large part an attitude and outlook that you’re either born with or not, but with the application of some discipline and rigour, I believe we can all strengthen our ‘tinkerer’ gene. Here are some suggestions:
Connect with new people or people totally outside your area/department/team who will be able to look at your systems, processes and practices with fresh eyes. Because they aren’t embedded in how you do things, they haven’t normalized things the way you have as being “just the way its done”. Their perspective can help you logic things out and really vet whether a practice is as clean and simple as it could be. They may even bring an expertise in a technology or subject area that can offer unknown or untapped enhancements.
Start with the end in mind. This isn’t a new suggestion, but it’s surprising how often we shape our ends based on the roads we’re used to driving. Innovation is simply the development of new solutions to existing problems - considering different ways of working can help you identify new solutions and ways of working.
Ask “why” more - not just of others, but of yourself. Humans are fascinating creatures with many hidden biases, lenses and presumptions that we rarely explore. Challenge yourself to answer the ‘why’ of both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ you do things and see if you uncover ways to get out of an unhealthy rut or practice.
Change is hard and is anathema to the human predisposition for equilibrium, but it can and should be done. While not every change is a positive one, maintaining an open mind and an active eye for where change can and should occur will not only serve you well, but your entire organization.
Erin Spink is a leader in the profession of Volunteer Engagement and founder of spinktank - a think tank focused on improving the practice of leading volunteers. From online courses to workshops and writing, Erin loves helping others embrace change and do great things.