Are you in a silo?
Every nonprofit I have ever known has issues with the “silos” they create through their structure. We have all kinds of silos: silos of information, silos of data, silos of work, silos of experience, and silos of knowledge. These are necessarily created by having departments or divisions within an organization. We have a technology department, a communications department, a direct mail department, a special events department, a planned giving department, an accounting department, a legal department, and a major gifts department. Sound familiar?
Departments and divisions are not bad—they can provide a clear delineation of duties and responsibilities. But along with these delineations comes a sense of each department knowing what works and what doesn’t work in their world. They feel like they are the experts on all things that can and do go on in or involve “their” department. This attitude is simply human nature, but it keeps people from interacting and seeing fresh perspectives—particularly where opportunities cross those artificial divisional lines we establish.
And of course we all deal with the “credit” issue. Who gets credit for bringing in that large gift, or which department gets credit for raising the most money overall? If we are all raising money for a good cause (which presumably all of our causes are), then shouldn’t the attention be on how the organization as a whole can raise the most money, regardless of which department, division, or person brings it in?
The best way to avoid these conflicts, attitudes, and credit issues is not only to have departments or divisions, but also to have multidisciplinary teams working on projects together. Why? Because it will improve your bottom line and get rid of the silo mentality that keeps a group from working together. The key is to expand the fund-raising pie instead of fighting over the slices.
Have you ever had an event where a lot of people were coming, and ticket sales were great—but no one told the major gifts officer so he could invite his big prospect who just happens to love that kind of event? Or, how about your direct mail piece that asks for a $500 gift from a donor who could be giving millions? Or the same “ask” directed at an older donor who is at a point in life where he or she will naturally be reducing the amount of his or her gifts? These forms of missed opportunities and unintentional “over asks” are simply the result of miscommunication between the silos.
Build a winning team
If you form teams to work on projects, you foster better communication between staff members at every level of the organization who will have different ideas and see opportunities where a particular department acting on its own may not. Exchanges of information and ideas can’t happen in carefully constructed and guarded silos. So, use your departments and divisions to align your structure, but don’t lose the opportunity to have staff communicating and sharing ideas at all levels by having multidepartmental project teams working together on creating new ideas or solving old problems.
Something else I’ve noticed is this: people want to do the best they can for the nonprofit they work for. I think many people are just naturally more passionate about working for a nonprofit. They understand that what they do actually changes the world! I have always been amazed how much pressure there is in a nonprofit to make budget or to achieve whatever goal is set. Where does it come from?
It’s not necessarily because management is tough or drives the staff. Nor are staff driven by bonuses or stock options. They are driven by their own desires to “make a difference,” which is why they are working for a nonprofit in the first place. Many of these employees could have chosen a more economically rewarding position in corporate America, but they stay in the nonprofit realm because they feel they are working for a cause greater than themselves. They are personally committed to make the world a better place. Given this drive, the pressure they create for themselves is enormous.
Perhaps we should be creating non-monetary award or reward systems that recognize people’s passion and amply reward nonmonetary motivation. Stephen Covey says we should catch people doing the right thing and reward it. Nowhere is this more true than in nonprofits. People want to give their passion. Let them volunteer for projects outside their normal work and you will be surprised at what gets done.
Communicate for success
Finally, here’s another simple idea. Do you create a “strategic communications calendar” each year? If you don’t have this kind of strategic plan (and most charities don’t), then you have no idea how often you are soliciting or otherwise communicating with your donors and volunteers. Some charities have no handle on this and, as a result, communicate with each donor and volunteer 30 or more times a year. Then, donors and volunteers continually complain about too much mail.
Why is monitoring the quantity of your communications so critical? Because donors are becoming more aware of their time in regard to your efforts to reach them. Charities that pay attention to and even anticipate donor complaints about communication overload will be seen as worthy of their contributions. Your charity will be valuable to them—if you make them feel like they are valuable to you.
Do you listen to them? Do you try to do what they ask? Or, do you even ask them? I know one charity that has no donors who complain about how often they get a piece of mail from the organization. How can that be? Because they actually ask their donors how often they want to be mailed—and believe it or not, that mailing schedule routinely generates an exceptional rate of response with very few donors asking that they be taken off the mail list.
Think about the many opportunities for interaction between departments, for project teams across divisional lines to work together, to galvanize employees’ passion, and don’t forget to do what your donors want you to do. Remember, in the Super Bowl, every player from both teams receives a Super Bowl ring in recognition of their contributions all season long, not only the winning quarterback or the most valuable player in that particular game. It takes a full team working year-round to achieve those kinds of results, not just one great player—or department.
Editor’s note: This article is based on one Ms. Winbery wrote for Dimensions, a publication of the National Catholic Development Conference.