sunset with street sign for change

This post on change management for nonprofits was originally written in 2015 and has been updated.

It’s been said that the only thing in life that doesn’t change is change itself. But can people really change—their knowledge, skills, and abilities? Can whole organizations full of people change—their systems, processes, and culture? Yes. The process by which this happens is change management.

We are all operating in a VUCA landscape—volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The world of work is increasingly affected by macro-level forces such as globalization, innovations in technology, and new generations of employees. Not to mention, a global pandemic. If we, as nonprofit leaders, are not continually evolving to meet the rapidly changing needs and preferences of our stakeholders, we risk becoming irrelevant.

What is change management?

Change management is the process of helping individuals and the organization to transition from a current state to a desired state. While there are many definitions and models describing this process, when you get down to the basics, managing change is all about effective communication.

Organizational change can be either continuous, the ongoing adjustment of organizational processes to make existing systems better, or discontinuous—a major people, process, or business change that requires a dedicated project team to manage it. Additionally, change is either proactive—initiated in anticipation of future opportunities or threats—or reactive, as a response to outside situations or forces.

Why should my nonprofit care about change management?

Change management initiatives usually take place in response to financial forces and market disruptions. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, organizations that plan for, and effectively deal with, change can learn to thrive—not just survive—major organizational disruptions. They can move faster to a new normal. A normal that is sustainable and produces results. Additionally, individuals who are able to adapt well to change are more productive and have a greater overall well being.

Two popular models of change are The Change Curve and The Change Cycle.

The Change Curve

Based on a model originally developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in the 1960s to illustrate the grieving process, The Change Curve describes the four stages most people endure as they adjust to change.

The Change Curve stages include the following:

  • Stage One: Denial—This occurs when people react to a challenge of the status quo.
  • Stage Two: Anger—As reality sets in, people tend to feel angry about the shift in the status quo and fear the resulting impact.
  • Stage Three: Bargaining—A lot of bargaining occurs while people are still angry; once their anger dissipates, so does much of the bargaining.
  • Stage Four: Depression—As people make the transition from dealing with their emotional reactions to accepting the change, many experience depression.
  • Stage Five: Acceptance—People stop focusing on what they have lost and start testing and exploring what the changes mean and how they must adapt.
  • Stage Six: Moving On—Acceptance leads to an embracing of change, which means the rebuilding of a new normal.

While the Change Curve depicts an individual’s experiences through change, the following model shows an organization’s transformation through change.

The Change Cycle

The German-American psychologist Kurt Lewin, known as the founder of social psychology and one of the first people to study group dynamics and organizational development, created one of the first models for understanding organizational change. This model, developed in the 1940s, is known as Unfreeze—Change—Refreeze.

Stage One: Unfreeze

You are preparing the organization to accept that change is necessary, which involves breaking down the existing status quo before you can build up a new way of doing things. This stage often involves strong emotions as people may try to resist the disintegration of their current reality. Although these emotions can be difficult to work through, they are necessary so people can come to an understanding—and eventual acceptance—of the need for change.

Stage Two: Change

People are beginning to resolve their uncertainty and seek new ways of doing things. This stage involves two distinct parts: First people intellectually accept the change. Then they show their support by participating in the change management process. Their behaviors begin to show evidence that they support the new direction.

Stage Three: Refreeze

Only when you see evidence of lasting change is this final stage in effect. Some signs of sustainable change include a new organization chart, revised job descriptions, and new staff on payroll. It is important to establish a new normal, although another change will inevitably come along. People must feel some sense of stability so they understand how things get done and are able to perform at full capacity.

Theories about change and change management are not new. This year has shown us how important it is to not only be capable of change, but to be capable of planning for change. Over the years, we’ve written many articles and case studies about change management and encourage you to read a few.

CHANGE MANAGEMENT: The Role of Strategic Communication

Change management is the process of helping individuals and the organization to transition from a current state to a desired state.

This workbook explores change management as a communication function. It lays the groundwork with an explanation of popular change models, including The Change Curve and The Change Cycle. It then guides readers through the process of strategic change communication focused specifically on organization planning, people, processes, and performance.

Learn how to craft a vision for change, manage stakeholder expectations, set measurable change objectives, and communicate change effectively in your organization in this latest addition to Brighter Strategies’ Training Series: Planning, Process, People, Performance.

Change Management: The Role of Strategic Communication ebook