Recognizing Resistance to Change in Nonprofit Projects - Heller Consulting

Recognizing Resistance to Change in Nonprofit Projects


It’s somewhat commonly known that a large portion of change initiatives, including technology-based initiatives, fail. While the percentage varies by study, it’s high – about 70%. We are living in an age of technical and social disruption – and today’s nonprofits are challenged to evolve through that disruption successful while stewarding donor dollars effectively. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs experienced this disruption first-hand, and worked together as a team to overcome the challenges they faced.

Change management techniques are proven to reduce resistance. Read about how you can apply these lessons to your nonprofit organization in our FREE guide: The Nonprofit’s Guide to Chane Management 

Unique Challenges for Unique Organizations

Every organization has a unique set of needs and challenges that are closely coupled to their mission and business processes. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is a nonpartisan organization that strives to enrich public discourse on global issues. By providing independent research, insights, and events, the Council facilitates discussions that include leaders from the business, government, education, and the arts communities. By combining multiple perspectives, the Council creates a rich conversation and a range of possible solutions for political, social, and economic challenges that face our global community. The Council recognized they needed to transform their organization to meet the needs of their future members. They understood that better management of their tools, platforms and technology would ultimately lead to better support of their members who are at the core of their mission.

The Council had made efforts to centralize their systems in the past, but the complexity of their database system resulted in low adoption of the new system, and a heavy reliance on the database services team to input and extract information from the system. They knew that a new initiative bringing enterprise-wide changes to the organization would present additional barriers, and they wanted to minimize the risk for the new project. One of the most common sources of project failure is managing the human factor of the transition.

Early Collaboration to Establish Trust

The Council proactively involved staff from most functional areas in the design phase, in order to ensure the end-user perspective was front and center. By taking the time to plan with a focus on their constituent users in mind, and proactively addressing the people factor in the change process throughout the transition, the Council and Heller team were aware of internal resistance the minute it surfaced. This process established a collaborative relationship early on that improved the design process, established trust in project leadership, and encouraged open communication for the rest of the project.

Recognizing Resistance to Change

With the design phase completed, the Council’s project moved in the testing phase. For the project team, this was their initial exposure to and training on the newly built system and business processes. According to Prosci’s research, this is one of the most common events that brings out resistance, and the joint Heller/Chicago Council project team were alert to the signals.

Resistance to change is a normal part of any transition. The key to success is in how an organization reacts to resistance to change. Unfortunately, most change participants do not clearly announce “I am resistant to this change!” Change leaders need to listen for more subtle cues. Some examples include:

  • “I can’t test anything until you give me a detailed step-by-step document showing me exactly what to do for every possible scenario.”
  • “I can’t handle these complex conceptual questions. Can’t you just phrase everything as Yes/No questions?”
  • “But what if (followed by an extremely detailed case that occurs once a year or less)?”
  • “I need to see a finished product before I can provide any feedback.”
  • “Don’t waste my time / my team’s time until the system is perfect.”
  • “I don’t need to be at this training. This change doesn’t affect me yet. I have so many other things I need to be working on instead of sitting here.”
  • “Why can’t you make it look and function just like our existing system?”
  • “I don’t know why I am in this meeting.”

Some behaviors that can signal resistance to change include:

  • Not attending project meetings
  • Not completing assigned tasks on time or at all
  • Hyper focus on accuracy of specific legacy data instead of looking at the big picture of whether the system operates and calculate formulas correctly
  • Lack of engagement and participation during meetings


For more communication warning signs and how to mitigate them, download our Project Communication Plan for Technology Change

Proven Techniques for Reducing Resistance to Change

Once you’ve identified resistance, it’s critical to get to the root cause in order be able to successfully move people through their resistance. Certified in Prosci’s ADKAR ™ Change Management methodology, Heller was able to support the Council in this process by using targeted assessments with staff, including surveys and one-on-one conversations.

Our analysis indicated that while the CRM project itself was well known with staff at the Council, few truly understood the expected outcomes of the project and their own specific role in the transition and future state. In order to address this issue, Heller worked with the Council to develop a detailed change management plan. Some of the elements included:

  • A series of visioning workshops with the Council’s Change Management Steering Committee, resulting in a compelling Future State Vision Statement and the identification of five critical success factors to achieve that future state vision
  • Strategies and tactics for internal and external communication related to the project and change initiative
  • Sponsor/Stakeholder roadmap and action plans for various stakeholder groups within the organization to ensure that these key groups were best positioned to support their employees and constituents through the coming changes
  • A comprehensive long-term training and enablement plan to ensure growing and sustainable adoption of the new tools leading up to and beyond go live

Transition Workshops

One key strategy to help staff understand the business reasons for the change and build a desire to fully engage in the transition was to hold an all-staff change management workshop. As an external partner and expert in Change Management, Heller led the workshop in the Chicago Council’s beautiful event facility. After an inspirational and personal message from the Council’s CEO Ivo Daalder about the organization’s long-term vision, the project’s executive sponsors presented the project vision and critical success factors. This was effective in increasing internal awareness about the scope and motivation for the coming changes. The Heller team then introduced some basic concepts about change management and personal transition.

The Heller team then introduced the ADKAR change management model, and led the workshop participants through a series of exercises to better understand their own comfort level and their personal role in the coming change and transition. The teams worked in table breakout sessions to identify common themes in resistance, and brainstorm potential solutions. Each participant determined their own barrier point, and began to develop their personal action plan to take responsibility for ensuring their own successful transition to the new state. Importantly, the workshop empowered participants to identify what they needed to be successful. Some participants needed more information about the reasons for the changes. Others were further along the ADKAR continuum and were ready to outline their own needs for training and enablement.

Another Real-World Change Story: The Canadian Cancer navigated technology change during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read more!

Ready for Success

By the end of the workshop, most employees had moved through the awareness and desire states, and found themselves ready for the technical and business knowledge needed to work in the new solution. Some were genuinely excited to get in the new system and start building their ability. The group also discussed possible reinforcement strategies to help support each other in sustaining the change.

The workshop closed with the Council’s change leaders—the Change Management Committee—presenting the highlights of the tools already in place through the change management plans and the identification of leaders in each department for business process and technical support.

“Thanks to the Heller’s change management workshop, our staff felt like their voices and concerns were being heard with regard to our transition to Salesforce. Although change is never easy nor entirely painless, the workshop definitely helped to make our staff less wary of the project and more excited about Salesforce’s potential to optimize workflows and improve communications with our constituents.”

Robert Cordes
Vice President, Finance and Administration

The Council went live with Salesforce, NPSP, Predictive Response and Cvent in July 2017. The Database Services team supports their 80 internal users as they continue to evolve their use of the Salesforce Platform. The Change Management Committee has evolved its role to serve as the Salesforce governance committee, ensuring that issues and enhancement requests are prioritized and rolled out in the most effective manner, bringing a constant eye to managing the human side of the changes.

How does your organization manage change and resistance? To learn more, download The Nonprofit’s Guide to Change Management


The Nonprofit's Guide to Change Management


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