Preparing for Changes at Make-A-Wish® - Heller Consulting

Preparing for Changes at Make-A-Wish®


As I sat in the lobby waiting to meet our client for the first time, I read through some of the brochures on the coffee table.  There was also a photo album that told their origin story.  After thumbing through it, I had to quickly wipe my tears before I walked in to our first meeting.  I’ll never forget that first visit at Make-A-Wish America, and the many visits after. I quickly learned that from local chapters to the national headquarters, everyone is truly passionate for the work they do.  They have to be. There’s a lot of work, logistics, and uncertainties the team has to deal with when granting one wish to a child. In fact, that is how we started working together. They felt their processes had too many steps, too much paperwork, and took too long to grant a wish. They wanted to be more efficient so they could grant more wishes to more children, and asked us if we could help.

Coordinating National and Chapter Organizations

One of the challenges Make-A-Wish faced was a basic part of their organization structure. Make-A-Wish America is a separate 501c(3) from the over 60 chapters around the nation.  Each chapter is its own 501c(3) with its own fundraising and financial systems. To become more efficient they wanted to consolidate the disconnected systems into one automated system that would provide individual chapters a standardized and more effective wish granting process.  This wouldn’t be simple, and faced immediate obstacles.

  • Chapter Independence – Individual chapters treasured their independence and were hesitant to adapt to an initiative led by the national office. They were concerned about losing independence, as well as losing the practices that they had worked hard to establish.  The national team needed to earn the chapters’ buy-in.
  • Chapter Differences – There was great diversity in the size of individual chapters, their priorities, and needs. Chapters ranged from small teams of 3-5 people to an office of 100 people or more. A centralized solution would need to consider a wide variety of perspectives.

To be able to grant more wishes to more children, Make-A-Wish needed to take advantage of the similarities between chapters to create a standardized solution that would save time and money while ensuring the unique delivery of each child’s one true wish. At the same time, they needed to account for the differences inherent in the independent nature of individual chapters.

The success of this initiative would rest on Make-A-Wish America earning the trust and support of the individual chapters.

Gaining Chapter Trust and Support

In basic terms, Make-A-Wish was facing a situation common to all organizations- they needed to implement changes to help the organization achieve its goals. By utilizing a proactive approach with proven change management tools and methods, they transformed an initiative that could have been met with anxiety and resistance into a transformative experience that helped build better communication and relationships across the organization. They are a great example of how to apply ADKAR-based change management methods the right way. (For more information on change management and the ADKAR model, download Managing Technology Change for Enterprise Nonprofits here)

Creating Awareness

For the first step, Make-A-Wish America had to develop clear reasons and messaging for why each chapter should support this project. They crafted a specific vision statement that connected it directly to the core mission of Make–A-Wish. By using a common, clear goal, they were able to explain individual stages to stakeholders including C-level leadership, board members, and chapter staff.  This project vision was present and visible for every meeting from the beginning and repeated over and over again. It was beneficial for the Make-A-Wish team as well as our consulting team to have the mission of what we were striving to do front and center at all times. Everyone understood all the work we did came back to this central goal.

Project Vision

Implement a centralized wish management software solution that will increase the efficiency of staff and volunteers, improve communication and collaboration, and provide enhanced reporting capabilities, reducing wish process timelines so that current chapter staff can grant more wishes.

Project Objectives

  • Increase total number of wishes granted
    • Decrease resource time (hours) required to grant a wish
    • Decrease overall length of time from inquiry through wish completion
  • Increase efficiency of staff and volunteers
    • Reduce manual processes
    • Reduce duplicate data entry
    • Decrease processes that require paper
    • Provide a central online repository for audit purposes – reduce paper
    • Improve efficiency of Medical Eligibility and Authorization approval processes
  • Improve communication and collaboration
  • Provide enhanced reporting capabilities
    • Provide the ability to report on specific pieces of the wish process to look for future process improvements and efficiency gains
    • Provide better information for Medical Outreach to manage referrals 

To expand the awareness of the vision and goal, the Make-A-Wish America team visited local chapters socializing the idea, gaining input and feedback on the project. The team was encouraged to provide their own insights that would benefit the project, making their ideas part of the eventual solution. It was key make everyone aware of the project vision in a more personal setting before the official kickoff.

Creating Desire

Often times, when you think about the concept of creating desire on an individual basis, it’s illustrated by the phrase “What’s in it for me?” The next step for Make-A-Wish America was to address this question and explain the benefits of the proposed system to the people who would be using it.  They met with individuals from various chapters to talk through how this change will benefit their particular chapter, department, and even position in that office.  Since the benefits of the proposed system for a staff person at one of the largest chapters is very different from the benefits for a chapter that has three staff members in the entire office, it was essential to take the time to address each chapter’s unique needs and concerns.

Make-A-Wish America also created desire and support for the transition by involving individual chapters in the initial design process.  It was impossible to get the feedback and involvement of all 60-plus offices, so the national office selected a group of 13 that represented large, medium and small chapters.  These chapters represented the diversity of needs across the organization, and could speak for their colleagues with similar challenges.  With a representative group in place, Make-A-Wish America and Heller hosted a series of participatory design workshops focused on two specific goals:

  • Understand the current wish processes for chapters of all sizes
  • Agree on a standard process that would benefit all chapters regardless of size

To get the chapter representatives prepared and engaged, Heller followed our established workshop structure:

1. Establish a basic process outline

To start, Heller Consulting interviewed the national office and certain chapter offices on the current process. It was important to establish a baseline perspective for what they did now, and how they understood their desired future state. We distilled this information and drafted a ‘straw model’ model of current and future processes. In these workshops we’ve found it very productive to revise and refine from a basic structure than to start fresh with each stakeholder.

2. Prepare the chapters for the workshops

Leading up to the onsite workshops, we administered a survey to gauge how the staff viewed the upcoming initiative and if they supported the idea. We also wanted their perspective on what they felt would be the biggest challenges. We then delivered quite a bit of homework for the chapter staff to complete. They were assigned to read through a 53-page document and contribute comments and changes so they would be prepared for the coming workshop. By assigning this large time commitment, we assured them that their input was valued and necessary for the success of the project. This effort helped to build trust between the national office and individual chapters.

3. Meet with the chapters

The participatory design sessions started with remote kick off meetings to introduce the vision, roles and responsibilities, and the path to get there. It was important to each chapter to understand that no decisions had been made yet, but that changes were coming and we wanted their input.

The actual day of the participatory design session started and ended with a lot of energy and enthusiasm and after working through the homework, the chapters were well prepared.  Individuals were placed in groups of 5 and each group was tasked to review and design a part of the process.  There were various locations spread amongst two conference rooms with tables representing each part of the process.  A facilitator, partnered with a subject matter expert, led each table and was in charge of collecting and documenting the results of the group efforts.  The day was spent full of conversation, redesigning, pages of print outs and mark ups, white boarding of new ideas and changes, and furiously capturing notes.   It was a full and exhausting day, but the end result was that people were fully engaged and offered many improvements to the process.  Chapter staff got to exchange stories, share ideas, and got to know each other better.  Together, they became fully invested in the success of the project and built strong cooperative relationships with other chapter members.

Conclusion and Top Tips for Success

By including individual chapters in the preliminary solution development process, Make-A-Wish America established a relationship of trust and mutual respect from the beginning of the project. This bond will be essential throughout the project, and will help all stakeholders take ownership of their eventual shared success. For me, it was exciting to see the passion of the individual chapters focused into an initiative that will serve the entire organization.

If you are planning an initiative that will bring changes to your organization, here are some tips that will help you communicate with your own team, whether they are local or remote.

  • Learn from previous projects. People will always remember. Repeat what was successful and change what wasn’t. Reference that in your new project what you are repeating and avoiding. People are excited to support change that learns from the past.
  • In-person visits are important. It may be expensive, but the initial face to face, informal meetings are critical to develop relationships and trust.
  • Participatory design workshops are successful when participants are set up for success with background and preparation materials. Make sure everyone’s time and effort is respected and utilized.
  • Establish a consistent message from leadership with clear goals and repeat it often. Define the reasons for the change, and work together to figure out solutions.
  • Leverage consultants as experienced and objective third-party facilitators. At Heller, we strive to enable organizations to succeed and guide them through the process. We make sure that the work and achievements were properly acknowledged as stemming from Make-A-Wish, while also advising on best practices from our 20 years of client successes.

For more information and resources

If you are considering a technology initiative at your organization, be sure to download the resources below. They have helpful tips and strategies to get your project started and maintain momentum for the most impact to your mission. If you have any questions, please contact us. We are happy to share our experience and resources.

Managing Technology Change at Enterprise Nonprofits

Taking Engagement Seriously White paper

The fact is while change is often necessary and healthy, it can a disruptive force, and is rarely easy. Interestingly, it’s our response to change that determines whether we feel positive or negative about what’s happening. Download this paper to learn factors that influence an organization’s response to change, a process for managing change, and how managing change effectively can impact the success of a nonprofit organization’s CRM and technology initiatives.