Skip to Main Content

An 8-Step Plan for Nonprofit Change Management

9 min read
September 27, 2023
Alex Huntsberger
A solid nonprofit change management strategy will help your staff members quickly adopt new technologies. In this image, a person's arm points out something on the screen of another person's MacBook laptop.

Change is scary. Change is hard. Change is inevitable. For nonprofits working with limited resources and staff, the prospect of adapting a new practice or technology can seem extra intimidating—even if it promises to make everyone’s job easier in the long run.

That’s where change management comes in. By implementing a change management strategy that’s geared towards their specific circumstances, nonprofits can help their staff members adopt new systems quickly and effectively. If you adopt this approach, your mission, your constituents, and your staff will all thank you.

In this article, we’ll use Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model to outline a nonprofit change management plan that your organization can implement with minimal hassle and fuss. Enjoy!

Understanding Change Management

Before diving in any further, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. Change management: What is it? 

Change management is a systematic approach organizations use to transition their operations and staff from their current state to a desired future state. 

The purpose of change management is to minimize resistance and maximize engagement among all relevant stakeholders. 

Instances where change management might be needed include adopting a new technology solution, product line, compensation structure, or standard operating procedure. 

In the nonprofit realm, a change management process might also be necessary to navigate significant shifts in fundraising strategies or programming. 

At its core, change management is about facilitating a smooth voyage through the waters of change, emphasizing the importance of clear communication, stakeholder involvement, and strategic planning.

Nonprofit Change Management: Your 8-Step Plan 

There is no single right approach to designing and implementing a change management strategy—but there are plenty of wrong ones. If you want to avoid missteps in your change management journey, it helps to use a tried and true approach.

That’s why we’re using Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model, the brainchild of renowned Harvard Business School professor John Kotter, to build out our change management strategy. 

Kotter developed his 8-Step Change Model based on extensive research and real-world observations. It has been successfully implemented by countless organizations globally, including nonprofits, to guide effective change management. 

1. Create a Sense of Urgency

If your nonprofit is making a big change to the way it operates, it’s probably because you have a compelling reason to do so. 

Whether it’s a fundraising strategy that no longer connects with your donors, a program that no longer meets the needs of your community, or a tech solution that’s no longer helping your staff succeed, you have an urgent need to change things—and fast. 

But an urgent need doesn’t necessarily create a sense of urgency. That’s something you’ll have to create yourself. The time for yanking everyone’s heads out of the sand is now. 

To create a sense of urgency, your nonprofit’s leaders should clearly communicate the reasons behind the proposed change and emphasize the potential consequences of not changing.

For instance, if your nonprofit requires a new CRM to connect your various operations, explain the many ways that your current system is falling short as well as the ways that your new nonprofit CRM solution will help everyone—donors, staff, volunteers—make a bigger impact on your mission.

Share data and stories illustrating the impact of this upcoming change, and make sure that you underline the importance of acting swiftly. A sense of urgency will grease the skids for everything that comes after. 

2. Build a Guiding Coalition

Change is a collective effort. And it’s up to you to build that collective.

At step two of this strategy, leaders should assemble a team of influential individuals from their various stakeholder groups who can provide guidance, direction, and support throughout the change process.

This guiding coalition should comprise people with diverse skills, backgrounds, and perspectives. For nonprofits, your guiding coalition could include board members, staff from various departments, dedicated volunteers, and even key stakeholders from the community you serve. 

Each member should bring unique insights and skills to the table to facilitate a well-rounded approach to change. And when the time comes to implement, they should help lead the way.

Let’s return to our previous example of a nonprofit implementing a new CRM. Stakeholders from your tech, administration, fundraising, and events departments—as well as key volunteers and at least one board member—should all be added to your guiding coalition. 

3. Form a Strategic Vision and Initiatives

A clear and compelling vision for the future is essential for guiding any change effort. It’s difficult to convince people they need to give up their old platforms or ways of doing things if you can’t create a clear picture of what the new state of things will look like.

Nonprofit leaders should develop a vision statement that outlines what the organization aims to achieve through the change. This vision should be complemented by a set of concrete initiatives that map the path toward that desired future state.

Suppose your nonprofit isn’t changing CRMs but is instead transitioning from a spreadsheet database to a fully tricked-out donor management system that better tracks donor behaviors, trends, and outcomes. 

Your vision might be to “leverage technology to enhance data collection and analysis and guide better decision-making in fundraising strategy.” 

The associated initiatives could include selecting a suitable donor management system, staff training, and data migration plans. By the way, if you want to learn more about donor data migration—which, when done well, includes a lot of change management principles—check out the article below. 

4. Enlist a Volunteer Army

Change is more likely to succeed when individuals across the organization are enthusiastic and actively involved. And if the term “Volunteer Army” is a little too aggro for you, why not say something like “Volunteer Horde” or “Volunteer Strike Force” instead (just kidding)? 

Encourage employees, volunteers, and other stakeholders to participate in the change effort voluntarily. Empower them to take ownership of specific tasks and contribute their unique perspectives.

This is an area where your guiding coalition will provide a lot of value. They can serve as captains who recruit and champion others to join the cause. 

One thing that separates nonprofits from more traditional for-profit businesses is the presence of actual volunteers! If your nonprofit has a thriving base of volunteer supporters, it gives you a large pool of potential champions to draw from. 

For our theoretical CRM migration, a great way to leverage volunteers would be to find ones who are tech-savvy and can make an in-kind donation of their time and expertise. Encourage them to become advocates for the change and involve them in training sessions or user testing to maximize their impact.

5. Enable Action by Removing Barriers

Any plan for change is going to encounter obstacles. The earlier you know about them, the better.

Have your guiding coalition identify and address any obstacles that could impede progress. This may involve restructuring your strategy, reallocating resources, or simplifying planned processes to make the change smoother. 

Ensure that employees and volunteers have the tools and support they need to execute the change successfully.

In the case of implementing a new CRM, removing barriers could mean investing in staff training and technical support, streamlining data entry processes, and creating clear documentation on system usage.

6. Generate Short-Term Wins

Everyone loves a good “W.” And, in a process as long and as arduous as this one, take the opportunity to celebrate every win you get. If you have to bend the definition of “win” slightly, then so be it. 

Celebrating quick wins can boost morale and demonstrate the positive impact of the change. 

These early successes provide evidence that the change is on the right track, motivating staff and volunteers to remain engaged.

If your CRM implementation improves data accuracy and efficiency, highlight these achievements. Share stories of how the new system helped identify opportunities for program improvement or allowed for more accurate grant reporting.

Even if it’s an earlier win—like successfully migrating over your donor data from the old system—that’s worth a (small-to-medium-sized) celebration!

7. Sustain Acceleration

One of the most frustrating things that can happen during a change management process is people getting frustrated with the new system and going back to their old ways. At best, it’ll mean a lot of bellyaching. At worst, it could totally derail your plan. 

Don’t let that happen. To maintain momentum, continue building on the successes achieved. 

Implement new strategies, regularly assess progress, and make necessary adjustments. Keep the guiding coalition and volunteer army engaged and motivated. Keep your plan nimble so that you can make adjustments as needed. 

In the case of our CRM migration, it’s important to regularly review the system’s performance and gather user feedback. Use this information to refine processes, address any challenges, and identify opportunities for further enhancements.

8. Institute Change

Finally, make the change a part of the organization’s culture. Ensure that the new practices, systems, or strategies are embedded in everyday operations and become the new norm.

Successfully implementing our CRM database system should result in a cultural shift toward data-driven decision-making. Encourage staff and volunteers to embrace the system as a valuable tool for achieving the nonprofit’s mission.

The great thing about this step is that it can be used as a springboard to make resilience to change a larger part of your nonprofit’s culture. By making “we embrace change” a core value, you’ll make your organization more resilient and adaptable.  

How We Help New Clients Make the Change to Neon CRM 

At Neon One, we know that a sound change management strategy is critical for new clients. Organizations that treat training, data migration, and implementation as top priorities when adopting one of our products are the ones most likely to succeed.

That’s why we’ve developed tons of resources to help them on their journey! For Neon CRM, specifically, we require training and implementation sessions and offer three different data migration options. While the implementation package does come at a cost, the results we’ve seen speak for themselves.

Through our Neon One Academy, we also provide a whole library of short instructional videos that clients can access with just a few clicks. This self-service capacity empowers clients to learn the ins and outs of their Neon CRM system and maximize its potential.

When it comes to client resources, implementation and Neon One Academy are just the tip of the iceberg. To learn more, check out our Services & Support page!

Join the discussion in our Slack channel on connected fundraising

Looking to become a more connected nonprofit leader?

Join 73,000+ of your peers getting industry news, tips, and resources straight to their inbox.