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Case Study: Initiating Change in a Culture of Skepticism

by on March 8, 2010

Executive Summary:

Julia Rodriguez is a newly hired executive director for Vote and Be Heard, an aging non-partisan organization dedicated to increasing civic engagement through voting. The board hires her, excited by Julia’s propensity for coming up with new, bold ideas for how to take the organization to the next level.  But when some board members balk at her suggestion to rethink their development strategy, she begins to realize Vote and Be Heard may not be as open to new ideas as she was originally lead to believe.  Now, she must navigate her way through Vote and Be Heard’s culture of skepticism as she tries to realize her vision of revamping the organization to make it effective and secure it’s long- term survival.

Emily Cunningham

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3 Comments
  1. Emily_Cunningham permalink

    Executive Response #1

    Julia needs to wake up and smell the coffee! Change is difficult, especially for people and organizations with long entrenched opinions that have worked successfully in the past. As Beth pointed out to her, knowing that it is time for change is far different than truly being ready to embrace change.

    Immediately after being hired, Julia should have taken the time to talk individually with each board member in an informal setting. She should have started conversations by listening to each board member’s passion for the organization, their success stories from the past and their concerns about the future. This would have led her to have a far better understanding of how to successfully convince each person to move forward with social networking. If she had done her work in understanding where each person was coming from and establishing a trusting relationship with each person, she would now be in a better position to move forward quickly as partners. The current situation has the potential to quickly turn adversarial, which will not move the organization forward.

    Given that the board meeting is in two hours, Julia needs to reframe the discussion quickly. I would advise her to open the discussion with her genuine concern about the future of the organization. Acknowledge that she may have been impatient, but that it arises from her desire to build on the organization’s past success and build for the future. She could turn the Voting Power Twitter incident to her advantage by acknowledging that one of the common fears about social networking strategies for companies has come to pass– and that it will help them to safeguard their own strategy against such an incident. That is, the fact that it has happened to an organization very similar to theirs can be used as a way to strengthen the safeguards in their plan.

    Julia could suggest that they try a very limited pilot project initially, rather than jumping into the complete development program. This pilot project could be used to demonstrate to the board the advantages of the social networking strategy, such as the efficiency of reaching a larger number of people quickly; reaching a younger demographic; and updating content quickly. She needs some tangible “real world success” to balance the board’s perception of the twitter incident.

    It sounds as though most of the board members have not used Facebook or Twitter themselves. They’ve heard all the horror stories and silliness aspects, but have not themselves experienced the power and fun of social networking. Julia could sit down with each of them, set them up in Facebook, show them the privacy filters, and then help them locate some long-lost friends, or connect with a group that they are interested in. This approach would help them get over their fear of the unknown, demonstrate that Julia really does understand their concerns, and get them thinking about the potential power for their organization.

    Longer-term, Julia should select a development director that will excel at communicating with the older demographic that built the organization and is still the primary funding source AND will excel at developing their long-term social networking strategy. I would also suggest that Julia specifically ask John Davidson to be one of her career mentors. With his deep knowledge of civic participation, and her enthusiasm and fresh ideas, they can both gain a lot from a mentor relationship. Vote and Be Heard has a great future in store.

    Carol Slaughterbeck
    Executive Vice President
    Herrera Environmental Consultants

  2. Emily_Cunningham permalink

    Executive Response #2

    Julia’s issues with the board are not insurmountable, and nor are her ideas for change DOA. But she needs to recognize that change takes time and requires a personal touch. Her role as Executive Director is to develop a strategic vision and then to sell it to the board. In the end, she needs them bought into the organization’s efforts. In this case, she doesn’t have the support that she needs yet, so it is critical for her to step back and begin this process anew.

    The most immediate issue for her is today’s board meeting. It is important for her to take ownership of the process by stepping in, acknowledging that the issues with the organization Voting Power are serious (no organization can afford to put at risk their 501(c3) status) and that individual board members have raised legitimate questions that require serious consideration and demand thorough exploration before the organization makes a major shift in the way that it tries to raise funds.

    She should use this opportunity to restate the problems that she is trying to address (i.e. aging membership base, taking advantage of potential foundation fundraising opportunities, offering programs more aligned with the changing times) in order to build recognition that there is a problem that must be solved. But then she should indicate that there is significantly more work to do on developing the proper response to these issues. She should indicate that she’ll be heavily engaged in that effort in the near term and will be reaching out to each board member individually to get their initial thoughts and begin to bounce potential ideas off of them.

    Regarding the hiring of the development director, it is likely that nobody will want to delay the process any further, most especially Julia. To that end, she should indicate that she is moving forward with a hiring process. Ultimately, it is the board’s job to hire her and her job to hire the staff, and this board has been mindful of those separate roles when they made the decision to wait to fill that position until she was on board. Thus she should have the confidence to know that she can move forward on this front. However, it would still be best for her to search for a development director who can be successful raising funds for Vote and Be Heard from its traditional donor base and through its traditional methods. That isn’t to say that she shouldn’t emphasize familiarity with new technology and fundraising techniques as part of the process. She should do that, and she should let the board know right now that she will be looking for the type of person who can successfully continue existing efforts but also help her identify where the new opportunities exist and how they might best be achieved.

    In this whole scenario, I am most uncomfortable with Julia proposing a major shift in fundraising strategy in such a short time without a clear sense of the impacts on current fundraising and the value to be gained from these new efforts. It is very dangerous to tinker with an existing fundraising base, regardless of how strategic the change might seem. The board has a fiduciary responsibility to maintaining the fiscal health of this organization. The skepticism that they have raised seems like a healthy reaction.

    It is my feeling that Julia is moving forward too quickly here; she needs to take the time to get the details of her proposal right. When she does that and she applies a personal touch to individual board members, it seems to me like they will come along. But she has got to be able to sell them on a concrete plan that demonstrates clearly how the changes that she is proposing will impact their fundraising effort. Along those lines, it isn’t enough to say that foundation donors are interested in organizations that are moving in this new direction; rather, she should be able to talk specifics about their current foundation donors who have inquired about how the organization is remaking itself for the modern age and are willing to invest in these changes. Those types of specifics will go a long way toward calming the nerves of her board members.

    Kurt Fritts
    Executive Director
    Washington Conservation Voters

  3. Emily_Cunningham permalink

    Student Team Response

    Having been the executive director of Vote and Be Heard for a little more than two months, Julia cannot change the culture of skepticism by simple attempts. The people she is dealing with are not part of the same mindset as she seems to be. They believe that you need to earn your right to be heard and to make change. Some people simply don’t listen, maybe they have an issue with authority and maybe they cannot take seriously someone who is new. No matter their title.

    Julia might have advanced too hastily and therefore presented her ideas in the meeting about two weeks ago without preparing the board members enough. In the following two hours, she should approach some people who have worked in VBH for a long time and enjoyed successful implementation of ideas within the company. By talking with them, Julia can know more about the board members as well as the reason why they are hesitant to change. If Julia can persuade some of these people and get their buy in, the board members might be more serious about her idea.

    Another big obstacle Julia faces is the Voting Power’s debacle. In the next two hours, Julia should think thoroughly about the differences between Voting Power and VBH and come up with the key points why Voting Power failed and why the same story will not happen again in VBH. She should try to persuade the board members by the different characteristics between the two companies and the reasonable proposals to prevent VBH from a similar debacle.

    When the meeting begins, Julia should remind them of why social media is important in the first place, because the company needs to recruit and engage those who are 30 years old and under. Real statistical data is needed to demonstrate how popular the social media is among the population younger than 30. After they have realized the immense importance social media – try and regularly shoot in examples in conversation of when others have succeeded with this using social media. These examples should be carefully chosen and all of them should manifest the positive impact of social media in engaging young people. Also, she should support her presentation by examples that “foundations are looking for people who are experimenting and trying new things.”

    When she is challenged by questions about Voting Power, Julia should demonstrate to the board that the real problem in the other company was not that they used social media. The problem is that their employees fundamentally had an opinion that was not fitting for someone working there. Their personal goals were directly miss-aligned with the companies’ goals. Julia should show examples of employees within the own company to prove that this should not happen here. If they cannot trust someone with a social media tool, then how can they trust them as they go out and talk to someone face-to-face?
    There is another point Julia should keep in mind – she cannot expect to persuade all the board members simply in one meeting. She should aim at the permission to start implementing her proposal in a small scale. Or she can persuade the board members to allow her launch a experiment. Above all, Julia should try to win the chance to initiate the change. Once the change begins, she can let the facts speak for her.

    Ke Ding, Jiandong Hu, Jeroen van den Eijkhof

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