Silo Busting: Connecting Nonprofit Teams

John SchoberNonprofit Collaboration

nonprofit silos

While attending the Finance, Technology, People Innovation Annual Conference for the first time, I found it curious to have a conference designed for 3 different functional groups (Finance, IT, and Human Resources) that don’t always work together extensively. Typically, a conference will target a specific functional area or target groups that are likely to work together. It brought to mind a persistent problem that I have come across in a variety of organizations and nonprofits – silos.

Silos are groups of people working and making decisions without the proper input from other stakeholders. They are a problem in organizations, including nonprofits, and in community ecosystems because they prevent the kind of collaboration that is so desperately needed.

Examples; IT bringing on a new platform to support Marketing without Marketing running a trial. Operations deciding on a new tool with proper due diligence from IT.    

Silos naturally form in organizations because:

  • Organizations are managed by functions (marketing, operations, development).
  • People are trained and work in specialties.
  • Human nature is to use information that is easily accessible and readily familiar.
  • Sharing information is difficult.

Silos also form in communities for similar reasons, but at a much larger scale. We’ll dive into the community silos in our next blog. (Subscribe to be notified.)

Management by function and specialization are not going away anytime soon nor is human nature going to change.  There are a few strategies, however, that people can use to minimize the likelihood of silos leading to poor decisions and the wrong kind of work.

Busting the Silos and Getting Connected

Form common language

Aside from forming a mission statement and goals as a nonprofit, it’s important to adapt the same internal lingo. What are ‘sessions’, ‘conversions’, and ‘deals’ in the context of a nonprofit? It depends on who you ask and how much they know about development, marketing, or operations. All too often, people use terms in a meeting that they assume everyone knows or is familiar with.  Challenging those assumptions by explicitly identifying terms whose meanings may be unclear and by agreeing on a meaning can be helpful.

Expand your knowledge

Sitting down with a colleague and asking questions regarding how their department operates is a simple way to begin a common connection. Conferences, sessions, or classes that bring people together from different functions are examples of opportunities to get out of your own silo and into other.  Attending conferences that target other functions or sessions that are cross-functional in nature can be helpful in expanding your intellectual horizon.

Align your work to the motivations/incentives of others

“Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”

It is often easy to assume that goals and incentives are aligned across departments  – you are all working toward the same organizational objectives after all. Quite often this is not the case, especially when you look at the motivations and incentives for individual in other departments.

For example; the marketing department’s objectives could be to increase interest in the organization, so they may work toward increasing website traffic and donor inquiries. Development may be interested more in quality of prospective donors rather than quantity because they find it challenging to manage too many opportunities, especially if many of them are small. It can be helpful to discuss with people in other departments what they are working towards and why. Your department should be open to the same discussions.

Improve visibility

Giving stakeholders visibility into the activities and outcomes throughout the organization helps with fostering a common understanding. This can lead to unique insights resulting in new opportunities for improvement and ideas that may not have been noticed before. These strategies work in breaking down community silos as well, although it takes a bit more work to engage people from other organizations.

Using one common platform throughout your organization can ensure that everyone involved from internal staff to outside team members has access to information they need to do their best work. On top of that, it reduces overhead from managing multiple databases and allows people to spend more time on the things that matter most, which is so important as a nonprofit.

Think about it. Wouldn’t it be nice to have everyone involved in your nonprofit working together through one platform? What if your board members, committees, and even your volunteers could access the same collaboration software? And to go one step further, imagine a whole community collaborating in one place.

No more silos. More working better, together.