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Mary Lou Makepeace
Collaborate and improvise for organizational change
By: Mary Lou Makepeace
Jul 17th, 2007

I recently read an article that struck a chord with me. It was a piece in which the author likened the process of organizational change to the way a jazz band makes music, comparing the improvisational nature of jazz to the need for groups to approach change with creativity and an open mind. I love this analogy. I believe that the most innovative and effective change can only be the result of rich, lively conversations among people who care about some central concern.


In a jazz band, music is a living organism that grows and evolves in response to contributions from the players. Nobody dictates a specific outcome; music is borne out of creativity and unpredictable group dynamics. This is how the best ideas are conceived in an organization, too. And sometimes the process can be rather cathartic for everyone involved. I’d like to share the experience of a colleague of mine, who has been part of an initiative to effect organizational change at a multi-agency level.


Grant helps spur change


Trudy Strewler is executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children for the Pikes Peak, Colo. region. CASA provides a voice in court for children who are victims of abuse, neglect or domestic conflict. Strewler recognized a disconnect between the way CASA was working with families and the violence and abuse that continued to pervade families—particularly among multicultural groups where the statistics were higher. She wanted to learn how to work with minority groups more effectively, but didn’t know what that would look like, or how to go about it.

When the Greenbook Grant[1] opportunity presented itself to us, CASA and a group of other human services agencies collaborated to develop systemic change in dealing with the issues of the co-occurrence of child abuse and domestic violence. The Greenbook collaboration opened doors to creative and dynamic thinking in the areas of cultural inclusivity as well. Partner agencies were interested in transforming policies and practices in a way that would create real change within all agencies, which initially included CASA, the Department of Human Services, the Pikes Peak Mental Health Center, and a domestic violence center named TESSA. The experience ultimately caused a dramatic cultural shift throughout the organizations and, most importantly, for the clients.


One of the most significant projects the Greenbook agencies each underwent was a cultural audit. The audits looked at everything from the physical environment and what clients see when they walk in the door to nondiscrimination clauses in policies and procedures, inclusivity statements, intake questions and the diversity of volunteers, staff and board members. The collaborative members of Greenbook shared what they learned, and they all found a need to work in a less discriminatory, more inclusive way with their clients.


CASA identified six areas in which to develop internal change over a period of two years, starting in 2006. An amazing committee of diverse staff members tackles these issues at regular monthly meetings. This group then presents a cultural topic for open discussion; other times the group reads articles or views a video, drawing from other sources for a balanced view for discussion at CASA’s monthly all-staff meetings. Most of CASA’s staff also attended a two-day critical thinking workshop. That experience, coupled with the audit, helps them ask introspective questions and be willing to take risks. The purpose is to elicit shifts in attitudes toward people of different backgrounds and to understand their own belief systems.


“By asking each other very purposed and personal questions about personal or family history, education experience, or whether someone has experienced poverty or any form of abuse or violence, people instantly become more compassionate,” Strewler said. “Realizing that very few of us have not come from some life challenge, we begin to open doors for each other. Sometimes what we learn surprises us. But we gain a better understanding and acceptance of one another.”


Lessons learned


These exercises have already elicited at least two kinds of change. CASA, along with its Greenbook partner agencies, discovered a need to change intake processes and forms in order to consider the diverse backgrounds of clients. The agencies also collectively found that their intake procedures were not warm enough—they were too cold and authoritative, and disengaged the clients.


Internally, the changes at CASA have been meaningful. “Some staff members were uncomfortable with the changes,” Strewler said. “They wanted to hang on to their biases and personal beliefs. Ultimately, they realized they couldn’t stay and decided to leave our organization.”


From Strewler’s view as well as the staff’s, the process was very productive and created a huge wake-up call. “The fact that our staff is willing to have deep conversations and intense introspection shows their level of commitment to our work,” she said. “Some of these dialogues haven’t been pretty—some have been difficult. But I’ve never seen our staff closer or more engaged.”


Strewler said the ability to ask tough questions and think critically has been a valuable lesson. “Our belief systems come from what our parents taught us and our life experiences,” she said. “But through the dialogue process, we learn not to accept things at face value. If we don’t ask critical questions, we can’t be about change, and we’ll be stuck in the status quo. We must have a larger world view in order to be accepting of people who are different from us, to serve our clients with sensitivity.”


CASA’s jazz-like collaborative approach to dialogue is a poignant example of the impact change can have—not only on the families CASA serves, but on CASA’s staff as well. I admire CASA’s outlook and attitude about change; it perfectly illustrates the phenomenon that “doing things the way we’ve always done them” is not always productive. Their experience is a model all nonprofits can learn from.


At the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado, our vision for change is to ensure that every citizen of Colorado will soon be guaranteed a sense of fairness and equality. We are working toward that vision by using a number of dialogue tools, educational outreach and time.


I do see a common denominator in all change processes, and that is ongoing conversations with contributions from different populations. People inspire each other with their ideas and voices. And their weaknesses, fears, questions and needs can be addressed in an environment that evokes trust and respect.


Above all, I believe that change can’t just be proclaimed. There is no script to follow, no sheet music to play along with. It is more evolutionary and extemporaneous than that. It can grow in acceptance when people are invited to comment on and modify existing practices. Then, the results become real and workable.


So, like jazz musicians, who allow themselves the freedom to improvise, devise creative approaches, and build on each other’s ideas, organizations have the power to induce change of their own design through passion, dedication and artistry. Let us all discover the wonders of ideas and collaboration. The music that surfaces may surprise us.



Mary Lou Makepeace is the executive director of the Gay & Lesbian Fund for Colorado (, where she oversees the Fund’s programs, builds alliances with Colorado leaders and other nonprofit organizations, and directs the Fund’s staff and policy. She may be reached at or 719-473-4455.


[1] “Greenbook” is the popular name for a publication titled “Effective Interventions in Domestic Violence and Child Maltreatment Cases: Guidelines for Policy and Practice,” which helps child welfare and domestic violence agencies and family courts work together more effectively to help families experiencing violence.