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Synthesis Partnership - Critical Issues in Strategy, Planning & Organizational Development for Nonprofits



Critical Issues highlights some of the complex issues facing nonprofits, and the opportunities imbedded in them for advancing mission.

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Synthesis Partnership

Strategy, planning & organizational development
for nonprofits.

683 Commonwealth Avenue
Newton MA 02459

617 340 9991

Other Critical Issues


#1 Why plan?
12 ways to serve mission.

#2 The Secret Life of Surveys
It’s about communication.

#4 On Boards
Get the most out of a board.

#5 The Structure of Planning
Tilt the odds toward success.

#6 Financial Modeling
Pre-test your decisions.

#7 On Mission
Why a mission statement?

#8 The Measure of Success
Metrics are essential tools.

#9 Nonprofit Brand Identity?
Mission, stability, & revenue.

#10 Mind Your RFPs & Qs
Optimize results.

#11 Integrated Planning
Differentiate & coordinate.

#12 Business Planning
Plan for sustainability.

#13 Facility Planning
Reduce costs & risk; improve quality.

#15 Strategic Action
Do, measure, track, report.

#16 All About Collaboration
The essence of nonprofits.

#17 Fear of Planning
When is strategy a bad thing?

#18 Tools for Planning
More resources for planning.

#19 New & Renew
38 Tips for Success.


Planning for yourself?


We’re happy to offer as much (or as little) guidance as you need.
Use our experience to assure your success.


Call Sam Frank at 617 969 1881 or e-mail us to discuss the possibilities.

Sam Frank




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         click here.




Managing Change

A large nonprofit dove into social media and found that its organizational culture wasn’t ready for the change (see sidebar Adapting to Social Media). A nonprofit CEO decided to change his organization’s business model and needed to convince two boards to switch roles (see sidebar Reshaping Governance). Other nonprofits have found themselves unprepared for success (see sidebar Unanticipated Growth), or for transitioning from a founder’s leadership to a more mature organizational model (see blog post on Succession). These are stories of major organizational change, told in brief below. What they shared was a need to manage change.

The missions of many nonprofits focus on pushing for social change or preparing people to adapt to the larger forces of change around them. Other nonprofits preserve and share a cultural heritage in the face of change.

Organizational change in its various forms, however, can be much less familiar and manageable. The need for it may be ignored or denied, the handling of it can be seriously disruptive, and the repercussions may be destructive.

Change management is a broad and diverse topic, but the essential issues can be framed in a cycle of change:

  • Recognition of a need for change
  • Definition of the change that is needed
  • Development of a strategy to effect the change
  • Implementation of the change
  • Assessment of the effectiveness of the change

Focused intently on mission, nonprofit staff and volunteers sometimes don’t recognize

  • shifting conditions of needs or funding
  • new opportunities for reframing operations for greater impact
  • dysfunctions that are dragging them down

Even when a leader sees the need for change, it may still be a challenge to convey that need to others. The intensity of commitment to the cause, and a hesitance to challenge fundamental assumptions, can obscure problems until they become very serious, or even insurmountable (see Critical Issues #9: Brand Identity for Nonprofits and the blog post If it Ain’t Broke…).

The best safeguard against the failure to recognize a need for change is a culture of strategic thinking, developed through a regular cycle of strategic, business and program planning. Organizations that value planning and use it often enough to foster ongoing strategic thinking are much more likely to expect change and stay alert to changes of all sorts.


Recognizing the need for change isn’t the same thing as accurately determining the nature of the need or of the response. The most fundamental idea of nonprofit strategic planning is to involve all stakeholders in focusing on strategic issues and developing an informed consensus about how to address them. Their aggregate wisdom, knowledge and experience is more likely to identify changing circumstances than is a single leader or even a full governing board.

When a comprehensive strategic or business planning process is not practicable, individual planning tools can still be used effectively (benchmarking, SWOT, a polarity exercise…) to explore and define issues and strategies for more immediate board or management action.

Strategy Development

A strategic plan connects mission through goals and objectives to mission-driven measurable actions (see Critical Issues #5: The Structure of Planning. This conceptual structure fosters the rigorous thinking required to anticipate, create or face change. If necessary, this way of connecting a qualitative mission to quantifiable results can also be used independently from a full planning process to guide board or management in dealing quickly and effectively with urgent issues.

Ultimately, depending on the nature of the needed change, the strategy required may be less about planning, and more about helping people (staff, trustees and other volunteers, other constituents) to adapt to change. This takes us to the front lines of managing change, implementation.


The implication of the title Managing Change, of course, is consideration of the issues of effecting change once it has been recognized and defined, and a plan has been developed.

Change is disruptive and uncomfortable to many stakeholders. It can require reevaluating assumptions, refocusing attention and restructuring responsibilities, power and prerogatives. Unless the process is managed effectively, some stakeholders will resist, criticize, complain, or just wait to see whether the initiative will fail so that they don’t have to do things differently.

Change management is the art of helping people to adapt to change—staff who need to accept changes in their responsibilities, managers who need to develop different styles of leadership, a board that needs to take on a different role.

The keys to success in managing change are straightforward, and they are all, in one way or another, about communication:

Clarity: Presumably there is a compelling reason for making the change. The more clearly you communicate the benefits of the change along with the negative consequences of not changing, the more likely you will be to minimize resistance, criticism, and complaint, and to stimulate active cooperation.

Engagement: If one of the challenges of making the change is to assure staff cooperation (and that of other stakeholders), you can enhance the chances of success by involving them in planning for the change, designing and implementing it, and feeding back responses to it. If stakeholders feel that they are part of the initiative, they will be much more supportive of it.

Supervision: If staff are expected to do things differently, they may need training, encouragement and time to adapt. They will likely need to review current responsibilities with a supervisor to establish priorities for tasks that may be less important than the ones that will support the change. A regular review of progress and impediments will maintain focus and support success.

Leadership: Successful change is not about you or them, it’s about us. Senior leaders in the organization should be sure to find a way to be visible participants in the changes being made, not just remote and exempt commanders. This focuses attention on the importance of the initiative(s) and enhances morale. It can also pre-empt or dampen political power plays and undercut cynics.

Transparency: Announcing an organizational change once—or even repeating it a few more times—does not convey a sufficient message of a structural or systemic change. Stakeholders need to have a sense of an interactive communication with the organization’s leaders, including encouragement to comment and providing individual responses and regular updates on how the change is working and how it’s being tweaked or improved as a result of feedback. Stakeholders need to know what successes are being achieved as the result of the change, and they need to be reminded about the importance of keeping on track.


Any organizational change should be accompanied by clear, quantifiable measures of success, both as a management tool and as a communication tool. See Critical Issues #8: The Measure of Success, for a discussion of metrics.

Change is inevitable, Awareness of it, and the ability to respond to it, are not. An understanding of the intricacies of organizational change supports relevance and sustainability.

Want to know more about all of this?
Contact Sam Frank at 617 969 1881 or