Creating Champions for Change From Within - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Creating Champions for Change From Within

You probably know the feeling. You’ve attended a dynamic conference, read a groundbreaking book, or had an inspiring conversation with a colleague. You know that if you could just get your boss or your board to act on this newfound knowledge, you could make some real changes that result in measurable improvement—either within your own processes or out in the communities you serve.

But you also may know another feeling: You’ve talked about your new ideas to higher-ups and are met with either a shrug of the shoulders or a direct “no.” Talk about deflating!

There are ways to help ensure that decision makers are soundly in your corner when it comes to creating change. Here’s how:

Curb your enthusiasm

When you’ve first learned about a new idea or approach is often when you’re most excited and want to share it. It’s also when you’re least able to make a strong argument. Don’t let your enthusiasm undermine your facts. Learn more. Read up. Talk with other funders. Anticipate challenges in advance and how you might address them. Then prepare a strong case before you approach the boss or the board.

Drive with data

It’s great to be excited about and emotionally invested in a new idea, but rooting your ideas in hard data will cast a wider net for potential champions among your colleagues. What kinds of change or measurable outcomes have other funders or organizations seen using the approach for which you’re advocating? If the outcomes are harder to measure in hard numbers, find qualitative evidence from sources your team will respect.

Pick the right time

Just because you’re ready to receive and consider a new idea doesn’t mean others are ready as well. Pay attention to what they’re paying attention to. For example, if they’re consumed with finding a new auditor, they may not be eager to focus on a new program related investing strategy. On the flip side, there may be topics that are currently of interest to them that provide a natural segue for you. Be patient. It may be weeks or even months before the time is right, but the wait will be worth it.

Acknowledge what’s uncomfortable

Just the thought of change can be difficult for some, but acknowledging that and offering support can help. Ease into conversations if needed. Provide time for everyone to process information in their own way.

Find allies

There are likely to be members of your staff or board who will understand your idea—and your excitement—before their colleagues. Ongoing conversations with these people will help you champion your cause to the broader group. I want to be clear that I am not advocating that anyone conduct an “end run” around a superior. Pay attention to protocols within your own organization, lest you pull the rug out from under yourself.

Answer questions honestly

You are not selling snake oil. You are making a clear and cogent proposal. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” as long as you follow it up immediately with, “But I’ll find out by….” Winning champions for your idea is as much about building trust between you and your colleagues as it is about presenting facts. Plus, good questions indicate a willingness among others to consider your idea and an opportunity for you to strengthen your argument.

Don’t give up

Many great ideas are met with a “no” when initially presented, but that doesn’t mean “never.” Find out why your idea was rejected, continue your research, and keep strengthening your argument and looking for opportunities to weave it (or elements of it) into conversations. Do these things without sounding like a broken record or becoming a pest. Eventually, your peers, boss, and/or board will soften, and your idea can begin to take hold.

Some new ideas will be embraced faster than others. Don’t be discouraged. When a foundation considers a new practice or approach based on deep thought and understanding, it creates stronger champions who will commit to that new practice or approach for the long term.

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor, author of Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, and a contributor on philanthropy. You can learn more at or contact Kris at


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