In the course of my job I have the luck of talking extensively with communications and fundraising experts about nonprofit technology and digital transformation. Even before the global pandemic, this meant I heard lots of chatter about “change fatigue”—the constant upheaval that folks in our sector experience in adapting to ever-changing systems. At one point this fatigue was primarily driven by IT teams implementing things like email. Then marketing teams went on a tear, adding a bevy of new tools to keep pace with the expectations of their audiences. Now digital transformation is everywhere and omnipresent—just ask your friends in HR, finance, and across your organization!

When you remove and replace systems, you are fundamentally changing people’s work habits. Since starting PTKO seven years ago, we’ve been preaching a lonely gospel about the importance of change management in ensuring long-term acceptance and adoption of new technologies. Yet in many settings, systemic change management remains haphazard at best. 

When change fatigue overtakes a management team

This doesn’t mean that your nonprofit’s internal stakeholders aren’t being consulted. To the contrary—many of them are being “engaged” too much! 

A revolving door of redundant requests and informational interviews make even the most optimistic executives skeptical about the “transformational” and “timesaving” improvements promised by the latest system upgrade.

I still vividly remember walking into a senior staff member’s office many years ago, hoping to gather information to develop requirements for a new communications system. My colleague sat with his back to me for five minutes while I waited quietly for him to finish an email. Finally I spoke up, asking if it would be better if I came back later. He turned, told me flatly that he wasn’t happy I was there, and said we should get on with the matter as quickly as possible. I smiled awkwardly, too young to know how to handle the situation perfectly. While I pushed through and got what I needed, this cynicism (in a subtler form) was par for the course as I continued my efforts. 

The hidden costs of change fatigue 

Every time your leadership committee painfully agrees to a new investment, it is usually treated and referred to as a “project”. This takes little accounting of the significant behavioral changes that will be wrought upon the organization in the effort—the traditional ways of operating that staff members will need to lose or shift. Hard questions and realities will emerge. They need to be addressed, or else they will be buried and reappear as resentment. 

For staff tasked with leading the implementation of the next new system or process, it is demoralizing to fight an uphill battle for change, on behalf of resentful colleagues whose feedback has not been sufficiently valued or listened to in the past. 

Yet this particular blow to morale is only one of numerous disappointments that emerge when change management isn’t prioritized. Without adequate buy-in from your stakeholders, new systems may be surprisingly cumbersome and inefficient to use, despite technical capabilities that are allegedly powerful. Or the tech may work well for many tasks, but lack full integration with other existing systems, limiting its effectiveness in driving improved performance organization-wide. Another frequent challenge is poorly defined governance protocols between the different teams that rely on a new system. Where this happens, incomplete adoption and inconsistent practices are sure to follow.

The end result of all of this: low return on investment. And even more dangerous is the long-term damage these missed opportunities inflict on organizational culture—creating environments in which it’s increasingly difficult to embrace innovations that mission-driven organizations desperately need to grow their impact and adapt in times of uncertainty.

If change fatigue is not inevitable, then why is it so prevalent?

When an organization treats almost everything (including digital transformation) as a disconnected series of “one-off” projects, there’s almost no doubt that change fatigue will be a constant. Where this approach holds sway, it begets a number of ill effects:

  • Most obviously, it creates a large number of projects (especially across multiple years). This wears down project planners, implementers, and everyone affected by change.
  • Projects will most often be funded over the horizon of a fiscal year—even though money will be needed to maintain and sustain new systems and processes on an ongoing basis.
  • The vast majority of projects will be owned and led by individual department heads, with project funding directed to their own departments. This gives project leaders a strong incentive to prioritize their team’s needs over those of other departments. Though rhetoric around collaboration may be robust, leaders in these contexts will probably miss key opportunities to integrate systems and technology across units, in service of organization-wide strategic objectives.

Let’s take one example: your HR team is rolling out a new tool (something like Workday) to manage recruiting and staff benefits. Are they partnering with communications and fundraising colleagues to ensure that applicant data flows into a CRM (Customer Relationship Management system), so that these future donors and board members are growing even more engaged with your mission over time? In most institutions this doesn’t happen – and it greatly diminishes ROI to the organization.

There’s also the classic question of overhead. When a department “completes a project” – especially one that involves new software – a shocked reaction typically follows from leadership and finance teams: “You mean more money is now needed to maintain and operate this next year?” Of course! How effective is a refrigerator without the cost of the electricity to make it work? It may not be a big expense, but it’s a requirement.

How do we fight and overcome change fatigue?

Change fatigue is a serious affliction in our sector. But with thoughtful consideration at the executive level, it’s a condition that can be successfully treated—and, in some cases, completely cured. Here are a few practical remedies.

Invest in a multi-year portfolio approach to digital planning and budgeting—one that moves beyond the latest system upgrade

We have to start considering the long game. In the midst of a global health and economic crisis, it’s tempting for executives to claim that big moves are off the table—that nonprofits need to simply focus on getting through the next 12 months. Yet if the pandemic has revealed anything, it’s that digital transformation is, and will continue to be, a primary indicator of organizations’ sustainability. 

This transformation doesn’t happen through a series of one-off projects. It happens through a portfolio approach that extends across multiple fiscal years. When nonprofits create a multi-year roadmap for digital transformation – one that engages and cuts across the entire organization – they map their suite of technology investments to long-term business goals. While gaining clarity on the destination they’re driving towards, they also get to stay nimble and flexible, scaling their incremental investments up or down in the face of revenue and landscape changes each year.

Fully budget for ongoing operational expenses for new technologies

In adopting a portfolio approach to digital innovation, we need to get serious about the ongoing costs of the technologies we deploy. They are not a penalty; they are essential and inevitable. Shortchanging these ongoing costs results in systems that are never fully utilized and don’t reach their promised potential in revolutionizing impact and efficiency.

Consider outside expertise to support change management and long-term planning

Is this a self-serving recommendation? Yes—but that doesn’t mean we believe it any less. Nonprofits can benefit tremendously from outside support in helping them look beyond the latest system upgrade, toward a long-term evolution of organizational capabilities. This independent perspective is particularly valuable for change management. We’ve found that an independent perspective is a potent tool to overcome the cynicism of even the most hardened and resistant managers. We are able to conduct conversations as consultants that rarely happen as colleagues. We listen and pull this information into a plan, and create follow up communications for everyone to know they were heard even if their ideas are not part of the initial efforts.

Develop internal resilience in working with stakeholders to overcome skepticism

Change fatigue among our mission-driven peers needs to be honored and respected. It’s not a choice these individuals consciously made. It’s simply the result of imperfect planning in a highly imperfect world.

It’s not about you—and yet sometimes you can’t help but feel the resistance pulling like a drag on your being. It took me years to realize that I have reservoirs of empathy that can allow me to feel and absorb the emotions in a room—and then carry them out of the room with me. I would be frustrated, nervous, angry, hopeless. All of that was energy lost. 

What I’ve learned the hard way is that you do not need to internalize it. Sometimes you push hard and keep moving, knowing you’re doing the vital work of holding the vision of something that does not yet exist. Remembering that there’s something beyond the immediate challenge that matters more. Other times, you do need a break from all the dogged work and persistence. And even within the most intense criticism are ideas worth understanding to ensure that implementation and adoption are as productive as possible.

The long-term focus on the path is what matters. Amid overworked schedules and tight budgets, it is hard for many nonprofit professionals to look ahead and believe that a transformative change is possible. Particularly when it’s not their priority and seems far away. It is your job to hold that future vision—to reinforce how it will work, how we will get there, and what we will be able to accomplish through it. It is in the doing of this work, together as a team, that the real transformation happens.