No matter how much you plan for it, change happens as a slow drip and a sideswipe – sometimes simultaneously.
No matter how much you plan, the future reality is always going to be different from your plan.
As a consultant, I work with clients every day who are dealing with change. Some of the change is welcome, like when we’re hired to do a training. Or when we provide an extra pair of hands to help with a big screening project, or to just be there for the duration of a campaign.
Sometimes, though, it becomes evident that the change I’m bringing was imposed on the people I’ve been called in to work with. Maybe that’s happened to you? You were stuck working with a consultant or vendor you hadn’t asked for.
Maybe your organization’s board chair was talking with a fundraising consultant who recommended a wealth screening that it was up to you to follow through on – with their preferred vendor. You might have wanted to defer until you had help to deal with it. Or maybe you would have chosen a different vendor altogether, if you had known a screening was even a possibility.
That happened to me once.
Or maybe the VP decided that it was time certain departments in the advancement division were audited. It’s hard not to be concerned in that situation. Who will they hire as the consultant? Will they even understand prospect development? Will they see what we have to deal with every day? What will they recommend?
That happened to me, too.
Usually what it means is that your nonprofit is about to go into a campaign, and that kind of change makes everybody nervous. Especially board chairs and vice presidents. They might not show it, but trust me, they’re nervous. Campaigns have a lot of moving parts and every cog needs to be fitted in the right place for success to happen.
In these kinds of situations you’re left to deal with something you hadn’t planned on and aren’t sure you want. Maybe you actively don’t want it. Quite possibly you think what’s coming down is a thoroughly bad idea.
I worked for years as a nonprofit researcher, then as a supervisor of research teams, and now as a consultant. Let me give you my view, from both sides. Whether you’re just unsure or completely apoplectic about this change-to-be, here’s my advice:
1. First, take a deep breath, and if your boss is standing in front of you, smile (or at least do your best imitation of someone looking positive). This change is probably going to happen whether you like it or not, and how you act right now in the moment will show that you can handle change with grace, maturity and leadership. Bosses remember this at annual review time, especially if they, too, are stuck as an unwilling cog in this particular machine.
2. Do a quick SWOT analysis. After you’ve taken a few minutes to absorb the idea, go back to your desk and brainstorm objectively about the good that could come out of this. What might those benefits look like? What might you learn in this process that could help your career? Even if you might not have picked this particular project at this particular time, how could it still be useful?
Now think about what roadblocks this project could bring up. If taking it on means, for example, that you won’t get to finish priority items in your work plan, arrange to discuss these new priorities with your boss. You might find that those tasks can be deferred. If not, this could be an opportunity to negotiate for extra temporary help.
If the project could truly have a negative impact on your department or division, it’s important that you lay out the issues objectively to you supervisor. Ultimately, it will help your career if you prevent him or her from being blindsided. Avoid using this as an opportunity to complain about the issue at hand, though: again, think grace under pressure.
3. Understand that it’s not the consultant/vendor’s fault. They’re a cog in this wheel, too. It’s possible that their only involvement was simply being nominated. As far as they know, everybody’s on board with their being hired and they have no idea that you may feel less than eager to see them. Just like you, consultants need to feed themselves and do meaningful work, so don’t shoot the messenger. Help them help you.
4. Use the vendor or consultant as your voice. A consultant can be your advocate if you’re not being heard. For example, when we’re doing an audit if a researcher tells us of a change, or resource, or any other benefit that it’s evident they truly need to do their job better, we will add it to our report as a recommendation.
It’s not in the least bit fair, but an outside consultant often has more authority to recommend changes than an inside staffer who has been saying the same thing for years. But don’t be frustrated – use that to your advantage!
5. Invite the consultant to join you for lunch or dinner. Three reasons:
a. You never know what you might learn – consultants have seen a lot.
b. Consultants have a large contact list of people who could be mentors or help in your career growth.
c. Everybody loves sharing a meal with a friendly person (or small group!) when traveling for work. An invitation to a solo traveler is a much-appreciated act of kindness.
6. Know that the consultant’s report will be flawed. Consultants can only work with the information that’s in front of them during the time they’re on-site. If there’s a long-standing feud between two departments and one refuses to share data, or if a staff member willfully tries to sabotage the process, the consultant’s report will definitely be skewed.
Even in the best of times, an audit report will probably have some issues. Here’s why: unless the consultant lives on-site for several months they’re never going to know all of an organization’s underlying issues or the solutions that have been tried before. But just because they may miss some things doesn’t mean the whole report is a bomb. Talk it over with them. Any good consultant should be happy to discuss their first delivery and work together with you to create a stronger final report.
7. If the project ended up truly being a bad idea, as much as you might be dying to – really, hold back on saying “I told you so.” (Except to your significant other, your dog, or your therapist). If you noted your objective objections (in writing!) at the beginning of the process, and if you made the best of a bad situation while the project unfolded – you’re covered. And trust me, by that time the folks in charge already know it was a bad idea. Chances are good you all learned a lot from the whole situation. That experience is valuable.
A positive outcome
There’s always the chance that the change you weren’t so keen on actually ends up being a positive thing after all. Maybe you discover more new prospects than you thought you would. Or maybe the consultant helps prove the impact of your years of hard work. Or more money gets inserted in your budget for professional development or for a resource you’ve been lobbying for.
You just never know. It happened to me – with a database conversion no less. That was a long, drawn out, frequently painful process that gave me incredibly valuable experience.
Change is scary and inevitable. But even if it’s thrust upon you – and maybe, especially when it is – don’t miss the opportunity of helping to shape it.