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Like it or not, Covid means changes affecting our volunteers are inevitable. How do we manage the upheaval change brings?

There are multitudes of theories on change management, and wading through them can be exhausting. For our purposes, here are 3 tips to help you navigate your changing landscape.

Why are volunteers averse to change?

Change represents uncertainty and loss. Change threatens our status quo and destroys our comfort zones. Even if the status quo is not ideal, humans cling to the known verses embracing change for a better unknown. Managing change is tough, even if the change is for the better.

Let’s begin by assessing the volunteers. As we introduce change, what are the volunteers thinking/feeling/imagining? They may verbalize or worse, internalize:

  • “Where does this change leave me?”
  • “Does this change mean more change (upheaval) is coming?”
  • “Will my role disappear?” or “What if I’m no longer needed?”
  • “What if change is an excuse to get rid of the volunteering I love so much?”
  • “What if I can’t adapt to this change? Then what?”

Tip 1: Involve the Volunteers

Easier said than done, right? Especially if Covid has changed policies to reflect social distancing. There’s little to no room for volunteer input on mandatory changes. However, HOW you go about implementing change can involve your volunteers. Volunteers can set goals and brainstorm the path to achieving these goals once they understand the need to implement change.

A large portion of change management deals with the why. Why are these changes happening? Failed change management strategies don’t adequately explain the why, which leads to push-back and ultimately mutiny. We don’t have to worry excessively about explaining the why, because a global pandemic speaks for itself which differs vastly from an organization internally revamping policies. We still must explain the why, but at least they don’t view Covid as some mean CEO who hates volunteers and just wants to get rid of them. (yeah, been down that pot-holed road a few times)

Create focus groups or panels of volunteers to flesh out how to best implement the change. Controlling some changes helps create volunteer commitment, especially when you connect the changes to delivering mission goals.

For example: Volunteers can no longer make in-person house visits (temporarily or permanently). You’ve already decided that in-person volunteers can substitute phone calls for the in-person visits, but don’t suggest that. Instead, ask the focus group to re-imagine ways to continue a personal touch. They may suggest Zoom or phone calls, or emailing, etc. The point is, give them the control and let them come up with the solutions instead of just telling them the alternative.

Tip 2: We’re in this Together

Make Covid the enemy, which means we are all in this together. Adopt verbiage that reinforces a team approach and commitment to flexible thinking (flexible thinking says, “this is not written in stone, your input is valuable to making this work”). Ditch the “I, they, them” words and use “we” verbiage such as:

  • “Together, we’ll figure this out and beat this.”
  • “The organization is on board with..”
  • “We’re all invested in our mission goals despite having this setback.”
  • “Everyone has a valuable role in achieving our goals.”
  • “We are all contributing to success.”
  • “We can’t do it without everyone’s contribution.”
  • “We’re stronger than this pandemic.”

Change management often fails due to something as innocent as two people in authority delivering conflicting messages. Conflicting messages reinforces the “they don’t know what they’re doing” push-back and undermines volunteers’ confidence and commitment.

Can we control messaging from other staff, volunteers and senior management? Probably not, but we can routinely ask our volunteers, “what have you heard about this change from others?” We can’t control everyone’s word choices, but we can clear up misinformation, discrepancies and bring messaging anomalies to the attention of staff and senior management.

Make messaging clear. Ask senior management to create short, easily digested statements on any changes. For example:

“Because of social distancing rules and guidelines, we have to consider the legal implications of letting volunteers go into homes, even with masks on, so to be on the safe side, we are putting a temporary moratorium on in home visits,” becomes “Temporarily, we are suspending in home visits.”

Too much verbiage is not only confusing, it opens itself up to wide interpretation. Often, long explanations contain apologetic language that implies, “we’re not committed to what we’re saying, so go ahead and challenge us.” Simple, to the point sentencing ensures everyone will repeat the same message.

Tip 3: Repeat, Check-in, Repeat

Repeat your change message often, way more often than you think is necessary. Sounds childish, right? But studies have shown that in order for a message to stick, it needs to be repeated anywhere from 7-66 times. Work messaging into chats, meetings, phone calls and emails. Be consistent. You’re not being patronizing, you are being clear. When you hear a volunteer laughingly repeat, “I know, we’re all valuable in making this change work,” you’re on the right track.

A change management strategy includes change duration (how long will it take to implement change). But here’s the interesting finding. In successful change management, duration of change is less of a factor than the frequency of reviews (the process of consistently reviewing change implementation). For us, that means don’t worry so much about how long it will take to implement a change, concentrate on frequent reviews for maximum success.

And formal reviews are superior to informal reviews. What do I mean by that? The casual, “hey how’s it going with the new virtual mentoring program” as you chat on the phone with your volunteer holds no weight against a scheduled, formal review in which you go over changes by taking notes, asking questions, and reinforcing the volunteer’s importance and value in achieving change goals. Formal reviews show you’re serious about successful change implementation and you care about the volunteers’ contributions.

Change is never easy, but we can manage it with strategies. And who is the best person to navigate a changing landscape that volunteers will get behind? You got this.


For more information on managing change, see the Harvard Business Review: The Hard Side of Change Management.