Lessons in Nonprofit Change Management: Deep Listening is Essential - Heller Consulting

Lessons in Nonprofit Change Management: Deep Listening is Essential


We often hear that a staggeringly high percentage of change initiatives fail. In fact, about 70%. We are living in an age of technical and social disruption – and today’s nonprofits are challenged to evolve through that disruption. Strong leadership during changes can make the difference between transformational change that can take an organization to the next level and lukewarm success or even failure. Deep listening is a key element to that leadership.

In my experience leading enterprise technology change initiatives in both nonprofit and corporate organizations, I’ve had the good fortune to work with and learn from several Executive Sponsors. Some were great leaders through change, others not so great, but each experience confirmed the same thing. A great Executive Sponsor spends as much or more time listening to their team as talking or broadcasting. Strong communication is important to the success of any project, and much of what’s been written about project communication is about communicating outward. A true change leader is most effective when they listen at the deepest levels from the widest audience, and then distill and apply that information to influence and guide the project.

Levels of listening change management

Listening to Different Perspectives

The first key to deep listening is understanding that different voices and different perspectives of experience can have an important impact on any change initiative. In practice, this means putting together a cross-functional steering committee that can represent everyone affected by the change. Andrew Caswell, Associate Executive Director and Salesforce Implementation Executive Sponsor at the Canadian Cancer Society guided their team through a dramatic and extensive organizational transformation to a new technology platform. He says of his experience:

“A large part of my role was helping people at all levels of the organization, but especially at senior leadership, see themselves in the future state. To do that, I had to listen carefully.”

Andrew describes his efforts as continually engaging with people across the organization, asking a lot of questions with a genuine willingness to see things through the other person’s eyes. It was important to take the time to probe for and hear each of the senior leaders’ vision for how the organization’s strategic plan could be achieved through improved business processes and technical efficiency. He engaged with staff at all levels, probing for and listening for the key pain points, the key elements that would help each person feel a part of the solution, see themselves in that future state.

“It could be a statement as simple as ‘I hate those phone calls when a woman calls to ask why we are still sending her husband mail when he died of cancer four years ago.’ Those statements give you insight into how to help each person see what’s in it for them.”

As Executive Sponsor of the Canadian Cancer Society’s transformation, Andrew made sure that every training opportunity and communication began with what the team had learned from listening. By starting from the teams’ perspective, the audience felt respected and included as a part of the solution from the beginning.

Constantly listening, and refining your project communications to reflect back the perspectives and concerns of your team will go a long way towards ensuring their support of the initiative. Instead of spectators, they will participate as change advocates, and ultimately, help lead the entire team to a successful adoption of the new system and processes.

A Culture of Listening

The benefits of deep listening and reflective communication should not be restricted to one project. By establishing and emphasizing listening practices throughout a transformational change initiative, organizations are also nurturing a listening culture that will extend beyond the immediate changes. Once a collaborative environment is established, it can continue to thrive within the organization, benefiting existing and future efforts.

The team at the Canadian Cancer Society took listening to the next level as the implementation phase came to its end, and the Salesforce Platform moved into the “Evolution” phase – one of iterative and agile enhancements to the platform based on business priorities and stakeholder feedback. The governance team, led by the Executive Sponsor, engaged with staff right inside Salesforce using Salesforce Chatter to seek constant feedback, and listen for and engaged with staff on further opportunities to enhance and improves programs, business processes, and efficiency.



About the Author

Catherine Moore
Catherine has served the nonprofit sector for over 20 years, defining and guiding the strategic pathway for technology, digital transformation, marketing, and fundraising at the Canadian Cancer Society and others. She is skilled at understanding and addressing the human concerns... Read More

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