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Agents of Change: Leadership Development and the Future of Nonprofit Consulting

Recently I conducted a workshop for New Sector Alliance on the topic of Change Management. The mission of New Sector is to accelerate social change by strengthening organizations today while developing leaders for tomorrow. My audience for this presentation was a group of young, energetic women and men with fellowships in nonprofits sponsored by New Sector. Based on my own experience, I knew how to present “change” as a concept and as a practice in the nonprofit sector. But I was most excited to engage in a discussion and hear their still-fresh perspectives based on their current placements.

leadership development

Change and Implementation in the Sector

“Change” is a term with a variety of meanings and connotations, emerging from the various perspectives and contexts where it may arise. Some of my favorite views on change are included in the quotations here.

Change, in its broadest sense, is a planned or unplanned response to pressures and forces. Change often has very negative connotations, it would seem so particularly in the nonprofit sector. Whether you are referring to implementing a new accounting system or simply changing the format of the monthly staff meeting, change is more often than not avoided because it is inherently:

  • Messy;
  • Confusing;
  • Loaded with unpredictability;
  • Threatens current practices; and
  • Threatens how current business is conducted and in turn can feel threatening to leadership.

From my experience in the sector, I believe it is important to actually elevate and acknowledge all of the potential negative associations attached to change; by making them more visible they can actually be addressed and in some cases the uncertainty of specific elements can be avoided. Regardless, change is inevitable so it is important at some level, to recognize and accept it for what it is.

In practice, change can be identified as any sort of shift within an organization’s lifecycle: shifts in funding streams, changes in leadership, implementing new systems. Here at Olive Grove, we often start a project off by asking clients: what problem would need to cease to exist for you to be able to go out of business? In order to stay relevant, the most impactful nonprofits should be constantly asking themselves what their “end goal” truly is, what problem they are trying to eradicate and how can they get there. Whether its ending homelessness, eradicating domestic violence or providing art classes within San Francisco’s public school system, in order to remain relevant and viable we need to keep on changing – we need to in fact embrace change.

Initiating Change from Beyond the Above

Now let’s get back to my New Sector class. After I explored definitions of change and their relevancy within the nonprofit sector, I talked about how the most successful change efforts are both embraced and lead by individuals in leadership positions (both staff and board members). Almost immediately a savvy question emerged from the audience: If most impactful change comes from leadership, how can I be an agent of change within my organization from “below” (i.e. a lower-level staff position)?

As someone who has worked in the sector for fifteen years I have held a variety of positions at varying staff levels (initially as a program associate/grantwriter and more recently as an Executive Director). These multiple perspectives in conjunction with my external consulting perspective have taught me that by elevating the issue/area of change you believe need to be addressed in a way that speaks to the interests and to be blunt, “pushes the buttons” of those in leadership positions, change can be initiated from whatever perch you may occupy. By understanding and speaking to what may be keeping the Executive Director up at night, you can identify and subsequently “package” your own concerns/thoughts of what needs to be changed in a way that elevates the pain points of the decision-makers.

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Cultivating Agents of Change from Within

Hopefully the New Sector fellows found this viewpoint helpful, and took our discussion back with them. That afternoon certainly caused me to think further about this idea of promoting change within an organization, from below rather than above. In an era with much focus on, and buzz around, leadership development and the sector’s inevitable leadership drought, empowering staff throughout organizations to create and implement successful change efforts should be a focal point of leadership development initiatives.

I took the New Sector fellows’ concerns with me to a luncheon, hosted by Compasspoint, that featured a longtime friend and colleague, Jennifer Lammers, Program Director at Alliance for Nonprofit Management. During this event, we talked a lot about the need for intergenerational leadership, and the lack of employees within the nonprofit sector in leadership positions under the age of 40. This phenomenon is not anecdotal, it is backed by numbers. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 75% of nonprofit executives will reach retirement age over the next two decades. Bridgespan estimates the nonprofit sector will need 80,000 senior managers every year to fill vacancies being created by departures. If the young fellows I met at New Sector are representative of the future leaders who will fill those senior manager and executive-level positions, the profession of nonprofit consulting will be profoundly different.

The next generation of nonprofit leaders does not bear the negative connotations of change that have been the object of so much outside consulting. If they are wired to question current practice and to embrace uncertainties, then we consultants may have our answer to the question Olive Grove asks of clients: what problem would need to cease to exist for you to be able to go out of business? Maybe the obstacles to change we struggle with daily are the very problem that keeps us in business. Certainly there are other problems we would rather tackle, in order to optimize the performance of the nonprofit sector.

Since forming this question myself, the most powerful response I have heard came from Emily Goldfarb, Co-Director and Consultant at RoadMap. Her perspective is that the future of creating change within organizations lies in cultivating and nurturing agents of change within them. Beyond our roles as consultants – coming in to create and implement change – is our duty to ensure sustained organizational health by empowering the agents of change within the organizations we serve. My experience at New Sector confirmed her perspective. The future of change management may be in leadership development. Rather than striving for the buy-in of leadership and board members resistant to change, perhaps cultivating staff committed to change is the shorter path to impactful organizational development.


Olive Grove chooses to work with clients who are interested in significant change to advance their mission – this may be a change in perspective, behavior, action, or any other organizational shift. Our approach requires clients to challenge their assumptions and engage in self-reflection. To learn more about our work in this area, please contact Jean K. Ries, Senior Consulting Director:

Jean Ries

Jean Ries

For over a decade, Jean Ries has supported nonprofits by providing management consulting with specialization in capacity building strategies, organizational assessment and change management. She has delivered outcome-based strategy consulting services to nearly one hundred nonprofits and foundations, ranging from small start-ups in California to multi-million dollar social service organizations in New York. Clients perceive her as a thought partner, helping their organizations to weather change, become more sustainable and plan for the future.