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Dealing with Resistance to Change

by Susan J. Ellis of Energize, Inc.

We all know that "the only constant is change," yet inevitably some (if not many) people resist anything new or different. Here are some tips to introduce and guide change in a volunteer program - with applicability to almost any situation:

  • Articulate why the change is necessary. First, be sure it is! Then explain the reasons for doing something differently - without sounding critical of past performance.
  • Act as if you expect agreement, rather than anticipate resistance. Don't sound defensive or apprehensive when you discuss the desired change, and avoid any self-fulfilling prophecy of putting doubt into volunteers' minds.
  • Do not surprise people. Lay the groundwork for changes to come as far in advance as possible.
  • Try not to be the single bearer of the news of change; engage a team to "share the blame." Having representative volunteers participate in creating the change is also a great way to make sure you've planned with diverse input.
  • Identify your supporters as well as resisters (nothing is universally disliked). Diagnose why people do or don't like the proposed change and see if this list of reasons gives you some new approaches to use in moving forward.
  • People resist change not necessarily because they disagree, but because they can't envision what will replace the status quo. So always explain the alternative or replacement plan. (How will things improve? What will each person be doing differently once the change occurs?)
  • Allow for open discussion of concerns and acknowledge that you listened and heard, even if you have to take a different action.
  • Whenever possible, pilot test the change in a small way first and assess the results.
  • Honor and celebrate those who contributed to the old way.
  • Make major changes all at once, not in dribs and drabs.
  • Provide training and support to guide volunteers through the new systems.
  • Thank everyone or hold a celebration as you reach milestones in the change process.
  • Accept that some volunteers will never be happy with the change and may leave. This is the hardest thing for volunteer program managers to accept, because we want to satisfy everyone. But if you have introduced the change with a participatory, inclusive planning process, have given volunteers options and training, and have listened to concerns, then you can be confident that you are doing what is right for the organization as a whole. Therefore, if one or more volunteers cannot accept your decision, it is better that they move on. They may be disappointed, but they don't have to leave angry.


About the Author: Susan J. Ellis is President of Energize, Inc., a training, consulting, and publishing firm that specializes in volunteerism. She founded the Philadelphia-based company in 1977 and since that time has assisted clients throughout North America (48 states and 5 provinces), Europe (8 countries), Asia (3 countries), Latin America and Australia to create or strengthen their volunteer corps. The year 2002 marked Energize's 25th anniversary.

Susan is the author or co-author of eleven books, including From the Top Down: The Executive Role in Volunteer Program Success and The Volunteer Recruitment Book - several of which have been translated into Japanese, Taiwanese, French and Italian. All her books can be found in the online bookstore. From 1981 to 1987 she was Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Volunteer Administration. She has written more than 90 articles on volunteer management for dozens of publications and writes the national bi-monthly column, "On Volunteers," for The NonProfit Times.

Please visit Energize web site, a cornucopia of over 1000 pages of information especially for leaders of volunteers. Call for a FREE catalog of Energize materials: (800)395-9800 [in Philadelphia (215) 438-8342], or fax (215) 428-0434. Or write to Energize at: 5450 Wissahickon Ave, Box C-13, Philadelphia, PA 19144.

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