What a Fundraiser Learned in Business School: Change Management

How Advancement Professionals Can Leverage a Methodological Approach to Affecting Institutional Change


When I decided to return to school in my 40s, my curmudgeonly friend commented: “It’s a little too late for business school, don’t you think?” Rather than preaching to him about the importance of being a lifelong learner, I simply replied that I had a gap or two in my education to fill. Indeed, that’s how the experience played out; I came away from business school with a slightly more refined appreciation for statistics, a fresh perspective gleaned from the for-profit world’s approach to marketing, and a side serving of humility. But there was a single day of a single class that made the investment of time, stress, and money worthwhile—the day spent formally examining change management.

As the name suggests, change management (CM) is a deliberate approach to enable and implement change within an organization. It’s a thorough and highly structured process, but a recurring theme is the need to work first with individuals and then with groups to ensure that thoughtful institutional planning isn’t derailed by the uninformed, stakeholders with strong personalities, or those who believe that institutional planning is a zero-sum game that positions them (or their specific interests) as the loser.

As a fundraiser, many of us engage in the practice of change management without even knowing that there’s a name for it, let alone that people have pursued PhDs in the discipline. For as much as we might be willing to look past CM and to dismiss it as being obvious or assume we have an intuitive grasp of the matter, I encourage everyone to research the topic. Viewing the field of advancement through the lens of change management has immediate, daily benefits and has a profound impact on our work that can be measured in years.

Academics bicker over the precise anatomy and mechanics of change management, but most would agree that organizations that implement successful CM follow this basic path:

  1. Identify the needed change
  2. Prepare the organization for change
  3. Make a plan for change comprising goals, a strong team, a thoughtful communication strategy, and concrete steps
  4. Implement the change by setting up systems and empowering staff; secure short-term “wins”
  5. Incorporate the change into the culture of the organization
  6. Revisit and analyze the impact of the change

Change management was not codified with advancement in mind. In my imagination, it was written in support of a widget manufacturer whose executive team wished to compel its shareholders to accept a plan that calls for the replacement of a manpowered manufacturing plant with an elite squad of robots. Regardless of CM’s origins, the principles apply broadly and are inclusive of affecting change in the nonprofit world.

The byproduct of strategic planning is change; this change is frequently made possible by fundraising.


Whether your organization is looking to make facilities improvements, grow its endowment, remove barriers to accessibility, or better compensate staff—your organization is signaling a change that is rooted in a commitment to its mission. Fundraising often underwrites some portion of whatever bold vision is presented. Change management is a ribbon that runs through both strategic planning and the fundraising that follows. If all of this sounds somewhat familiar, it should. Here’s a simplified look at the six steps above through the eyes of a gift officer:

  1. Governance develops a strategic plan informed by community feedback
  2. The organization builds a team of respected volunteers and credible staff who can go door-to-door visiting influential individuals (including donors) to build buy-in for the vision
  3. Using the now broadly endorsed Strategic Plan, the organization identifies critical funding priorities, presents them in the form of a case for support, and tests them with its best prospects
  4. The organization pursues the campaign—with an emphasis on those short-term wins during the critical lead phase of a campaign
  5. The organization deploys the funds to build the new facilities or retain the top-notch staff and THEN documents the gains.
  6. Led by its gift officers and communications department, the organization reports on the impact of the campaign and stewards its donors.

The crucial work that a gift officer performs long before a formal request often aligns with the change management road map. Thoughtful cultivation is consistent with the principles of CM and greatly improves the likelihood of success; it includes articulating the objectives that our institutions have identified, seeking feedback from our prospects, and given the opportunity, helping to articulate why the prescribed change matters and helping our prospects understand why the strategic vision aligns with their own personal values.

We play an instrumental role in carrying good people though our organizations’ change management process, or as we refer to them, our donor “pipelines.” As we move prospects through our structured pipelines, we are ensuring that they will not be surprised by the decisions or actions of our organizations. From this optimistic vantage point, we are increasing the probability that our prospects and our communities feel ownership over the new institutional direction and that they ultimately make financial investments to facilitate the necessary change.

It is important to note that nonprofits’ strategic planning processes are not identical to change management—a salient example is the emphasis that CM places on grass roots buy-in. While, yes, our organizations are earnest in a desire to earn trust from every stakeholder, fundraisers necessarily spend more time working with those few who can make the goal-achieving gifts to pay for change. I do not hold an advanced degree in change management, but even having dabbled in the field has refined my view of our important work. Before your organization pursues a new and important initiative, I invite you to take your own voyage down this rabbit hole of management consulting.

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About the author

Shelby LaMar

Vice President

Shelby LaMar, Consulting Vice President, serves clients within our independent school practice area. He has more than 20 years of experience within this sector, including managing capital campaigns, annual funds, and advancement services, as well as communications and marketing development, including proposal writing, and case statement development. Since 2009, Shelby…