Change: The Invisible Thread in Our Work - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Change: The Invisible Thread in Our Work

Change is life’s only constant. As philanthropists, we will either be undergoing change or driving it throughout our time involved in giving. Whether you love it or hate it, are in a position to react to it or create it, it is critical to our success as change agents to understand how we experience change and what we can do to manage it.

What are some changes you might face—or drive—as givers?

  • Changing economic times
  • Changing political climates, whether federal, state, or local
  • Local changes (e.g., closing of a key social services agency, hiring of new school superintendent)
  • Organizational changes (e.g., new trustees or board chair, hiring a first or new staff person, changing philanthropic strategy, influx of assets)

How People Experience Change

Many theories explain how individuals come to accept change. One, the Change Curve, is particularly accessible. Originally developed in the 1960s by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it is based on a model of the grieving process—a model Kübler-Ross proposed could be applied to any life-changing event.

Over the years, the Change Curve has become a core concept in change management, and it is often applied in business and other organizational settings. The curve and its associated emotions can be used to predict how people presumably will react to the announcement and subsequent implementation of a significant change. Individuals will progress through the stages differently, and not every individual will experience every stage.

Stage 1: Shock and Denial
  • What happens? Shock is usually the initial reaction to change, often due to fear, surprise, or lack of information. Although typically short-lived, it can result in negative fallout (e.g., uncertainty, confusion, a scramble to hold on to resources). After the initial shock passes, denial is common. People may try to convince themselves that the change won’t actually happen, or, if it does, that it won’t affect them. Some may romanticize the past and question the need for change.
  • What helps? Reiterate what the change is, why it is necessary, and the effects it may have. Provide as much reassurance as possible to support individuals struggling with this stage.
Stage 2: Anger and Depression
  • What happens? After shock and denial subside, people may start to feel anger, resentment, or fear. They may resist the change actively or passively, and feel skeptical or frustrated. The lowest point of the curve comes when the anger wears off and the realization hits that the change is a reality. It is common for morale to be low, and for self-doubt and anxiety to peak. During this stage, people may have difficulty expressing their feelings, and disappointment may occur when people acknowledge the impact of what has been lost.
  • What helps? Planning, preparation, and more communication are key. Consider the impact on people and the objections they may raise. Address doubts and objections early with clear communication and support. Because reactions to change are personal and can be emotional, it is impossible to preempt everything, so be sure to listen and watch carefully during this stage so you can respond expeditiously to the unexpected.
Stage 3: Acceptance
  • What happens? Here, individuals turn the corner. They understand that change is inevitable, so they try to make sense of what it means to move forward. People begin to work with rather than against the change. And the new opportunities begin to excite them.
  • What helps? Make sure people are well trained, have the resources and support to execute their new roles, and are given early opportunities to experience what the change will bring. Remind everyone that implementing change takes time. Build in time so people can learn and explore without too much pressure.
Stage 4: Commitment
  • What happens? Gradually, change becomes second nature. Your team or organization starts to become productive and efficient, and people embrace the improvements in the way they work.
  • What helps? Celebrate successes, and continue communicating and supporting the team. Regular progress reports and praise help to cement the buoyant mood. Steady support is key, because there is a risk of slipping back to an earlier stage if people feel unsupported.

Tips for Managing Change

  • Have a plan. A clear road map of what, when, why, and “so what” is critical to allay anxiety. People are much less anxious when they know what to expect.
  • Communicate often. Because change is about forging a new path, it will take effort and time. Throughout the process, constant communication is needed; without it, rumors begin.
  • Be specific. Change is scary, because it diverts from the known. One way to alleviate fear is to be specific about what the change is and how it is going to be achieved. “If you want people to change,” write Chip Heath and Dan Heath in their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, “you don’t ask them to ‘act healthier.’ You say, ‘Next time you’re in the dairy aisle of the grocery story, reach for a jug of 1% milk instead of whole milk.’”
  • Remember head and heart. Change can stir up emotions. To effectively manage change, attend to both the rational and emotional sides of a person—the head and the heart.
  • Amass several quick wins. Change is easier to understand when you see it. Build into the plan several quick wins that indicate the kind of change you want to bring. For example, if your organization is committed to putting people first, giving your team an hour-long lunch instead of a half hour might signal that things are changing.

Keep in mind: Organizations don’t just change because of new systems, processes, or structures. They change because the people within adapt and change too. Only when people make their own transitions—with your help—can an organization truly reap the benefits of change.

Gali Cooks, executive director of the Jewish Leadership Pipelines Alliance and former foundation executive director and Exponent Philanthropy board member, knows how to build successful organizations. She has a career that spans the public, nonprofit, and private sectors—and she is fascinated by philanthropy, positioned at the intersection of all three. Follow Gali on Twitter @galicooks.


  1. […] a shifting economic climate, new grantmaking focus, or decision to sunset your philanthropy, being able to manage change thoughtfully can have powerful effects on your work and those involved in it. Keep in mind: Some people adore […]

  2. […] a shifting economic climate, new grantmaking focus, or decision to sunset your philanthropy, being able to manage change thoughtfully can have powerful effects on your work and those involved in it. Keep in mind: Some people adore […]

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