Do you want to catalyze change at your foundation? Perhaps you want to improve board dynamics, refine your mission, or implement new technology. Many forces can initiate change, and here we explore how your fellow trustees and staff champion change successfully from the inside out.
Every situation is different, of course, and we encourage you to use these ideas not as a checklist, but as inspiration and support as you craft an approach tailored to your particulars.
Prepare. You don’t need to become an expert in all matters related to the change you will propose, but it is important to gather sufficient information to demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, and to be able to share appropriate information with others. Be sure to appeal to both the head (with data, sample forms, time lines, and the like) and the heart (with stories of others’ successes or lessons learned, for example).
You may also want to spend time learning about change itself. Inside Change looks carefully at how change happens within organizations and encourages us to think about how to transform judgment into curiosity, frustration into excitement, and fear into courage.
Listen well. Plenty of evidence suggests that people are curious, innovative, and adaptable. So why can it be so hard to create change? Well, to start, when people feel pushed, they often resist.
In Humble Inquiry, Edgar Schein describes the emphasis our culture places on telling and doing rather than listening and asking. He describes the power of learning to inquire, humbly. By asking others about their experiences and ideas, we create the possibility of learning from them and, in turn, building trust and gaining information that can inform and improve our plans for change.
Look at your foundation differently: as a group of individuals. It’s easy to think of a foundation as a monolithic entity, but, even if entrenched, it’s still composed of different people with different motivations.
Think about what each personality type might need to consider or embark on change. For example, introverts tend to prefer information and time for reflection before making decisions, whereas extroverts tend to need time for meaningful conversation. Some individuals rely heavily on logic—and will value data and examples, whereas others approach situations with their feelings first and will want to consider fit with the foundation’s values.
Be strategic in using different types of conversations. Initiate one-on-one conversations to learn more about individual concerns and enthusiasms, and alternate those with group discussions. “Use every method at your disposal,” says Kelly Medinger of The Marion I. & Henry J. Knott Foundation in Baltimore. “People are very different in how they prefer to communicate.” In addition to conversations, she uses online polls and surveys to gather input.
Find an ally. It’s exhausting, and eventually ineffective, to jump-start change on your own. When you have one-on-one conversations, identify prospective allies and ask them to help move the change forward. Sometimes, hearing a different voice can help people listen.
Allow change to happen. Change has its own pace. You can invite it, inspire it, initiate it, and steer it, but you’ll be more successful if you don’t attempt to control the outcome. “You start with a vision for where change is going to go,” says Joëlle Allen of Peacock Foundation, Inc. in Miami, “but, if you are too rigid about the process and the outcome, you’ll close yourself off from serendipities and surprises. If you think you know all the answers, you’ll miss some wonderful opportunities along the way.”
We invite you to share your experiences and insights with us so we may help you and others create wonderful new possibilities with your foundations.
Senior Program Director Ruth Masterson works closely with members to create written materials and training curricula, and answers member questions on foundation administration, governance, boards, and tax and legal topics. She is our data expert and also project manager for Exponent Philanthropy’s Practical Board Self-Assessment. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Ruth served nonprofits in her work at Adler & Colvin, the Council on Foundations, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law.