Pitching Change

As you wrap-up 2015 and begin working on 2016, you may be planning changes. Sometimes the hardest part of making changes is persuading your board, executive director, or colleagues to buy-in to the change.  Said Woodrow Wilson, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something.”

Imagine, for example, deciding to eliminate your organization’s printed annual report. One organization on whose board of directors I served in Gainesville, GA decided to go to an [almost] exclusively electronic annual report. To make sure they don’t miss anyone, they sent out postcards letting their constituents know the report was available online and giving everyone the web address. They also let people know that they could request a print copy if they would like—though few did. This move has saved the organization hundreds of dollars in printing and postage and the response from donors has been overwhelming positive.

Other organizations I know have considered this move, but staff have objected because the annual report is such a beloved report publication—for the staff at least. I’ve also watched board of directors members cling to fundraising events that didn’t raise money as if they were life rafts and they had been tossed overboard in the North Atlantic. And, I’ve seen staff members reject a fundraising event as if it were the Bubonic plague, despite the fact that the event raised almost $350,000. All of these seemingly irrational decisions have been made because the decisions would require change and change was unwelcome.

So the question becomes, how can we as executive directors, development directors, or communications directors best pitch our ideas so that our internal stakeholders will adopt them?

  • Don’t pitch your idea until you’ve worked out the details, recommends Scott Berkun, the best-selling author of Making Things Happen (2008), The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work (2013), and The Myths of Innovation (2010). Observes Berkun, often people are really excited when they have a new idea, especially when they have a sense of clarity that the new idea will solve a problem. In the rush of excitement, it might be tempting to share your idea immediately. Don’t.  You don’t want your idea shot-down by questions about the specifics so wait until you can answer the questions the board, the E.D., or the staff are sure to ask (Can we really make it happen? How much will it cost? Do we have to have a permit for that? Would people really come?)  Save your idea until it’s ready and your pitch is polished–even if you ultimately want to deliver the pitch casually.
  • Liane Davey, author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done (2013), counsels to link your idea to current practice. If your idea is not tied in some way to existing practices or programs at the organization, the sharing of your new idea can come across as arrogance or insult, suggesting there is no value in the current organization’s program or that you know it all and don’t need the current organization or staff, says Davey. Try to pitch your idea as an extension of the current program, rather than as something new. If you can, show your ideas as something that represents an extension of the current direction, rather than a change in direction, your ideas are more likely to be better received. Without some connection to the current program or practice of the organization, your idea can feel unfamiliar and more scary.
  • The old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” definitely applies to change management argue John Kotter and Leonard Schlesigner in a Harvard Business Review article on change management, “Choosing Strategies for Change,” (July-Aug 2008). Preventing resistance might look like an education and communication campaign that might entail small group meetings, presentations, videos, or other methods that educate about the need for change and the specifics of the proposed change and why it is necessary.

““You can go only so far by going it alone…If you want to raise money for a good cause…You’ll never accomplish anything big if you try to do it alone”

— David Novak, Taking People With You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen (2012: p 1)

For further reading, check-out Liane Davey’s November (2015) Harvard Business Review Article about pitching your new idea. She offers suggested responses to both passive-aggressive resistance like eye-rolling and silence and more directly hostile resistance like being dismissed or sarcasm.

Gaining the buy-in of our board, Executive Director, or colleagues can be challenging, but as David Novak, long-time CEO of Yum! and author of Taking People with You: The Only Way to Make Big Things Happen argues, “You can go only so far by going it alone…If you want to raise money for a good cause…You’ll never accomplish anything big if you try to do it alone” (2012: page 1)