“I can’t talk to them. They don’t want to have anything to do with development.” These were the words of one development director when asked why his department could never seem to get any good stories about the need from the program department.
And another one: “These teachers just don’t care enough about their school. They don’t want to help us raise funds because they say they are too busy teaching. Don’t they know that when you teach at a non-profit school you have to be willing to fundraise?
Two different, but very real scenarios. Development can’t work with program, program can’t work with development.
But, as you know, not being able to communicate or work with different departments of your non-profit is a disease in our industry. It’s something that Richard and I come across almost daily when working with our major gift teams.
Recently I sat on a panel of non-profit leaders discussing this very topic. One of the commentators pointed out that this “disease”’ of working in silos is not just endemic to our industry. It’s everywhere.
Why? Well, I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that departments are made up of people. People are messy. We don’t always do the right thing. We have emotional and personal baggage we bring to our jobs that are steeped in the dysfunctions of our own families and childhood.
But, the good news about dealing with people who make up these departments and eventually put up walls, or silos, is that we can form relationships. And when we form those relationships, amazing things happen. In real relationship, empathy happens. When empathy happens, walls break down between people, structures, departments and organizations. Richard and I have seen wonderful things happen when people begin to relate to others in respectful, honoring ways.
Here are a few thoughts on how you can foster relationships and break down those silos:

  1. Set up expectations at the very beginning — As in my example above regarding the development folks complaining about the teachers, if the development team had met with the school staff early in August and explained their role with fundraising, teachers would have had a better understanding of what was expected of them. Setting expectations with all staff is vital to breaking down silos.
  2. Create forums for presentations given by all departments — Many non-profits have “all staff” meetings. But the ones I have seen are rarely done well. Each department needs to know what the other is up to. Knowledge is key. This helps each department (and all the people in that department) understand the challenges, celebrations and vision of that department. Just as in the way we want to report back to donors, we also need to do that with ourselves. Our major gift folks can learn so much from finance, program and HR when they hear those stories.
  3. Leaders need to lead — Nothing can break down barriers at a non-profit more than a strong leader who demands it. A donor-centered leader will understand that to create a culture of philanthropy everyone has to be talking to each other. Whenever we see a non-profit where everyone has to “work around” the leader, we see massive silo problems.
  4. It can start from the bottom up — Going back to that panel discussion, one of the final ideas offered was that no matter what position you hold in an organization, YOU have the power to change it. When that was said in the room all kinds of hands went up with stories about regular people with “no power” who helped foster change because they thought it was important. So, you might be a major gift officer and one of 100 people in your office, but if something is not right, instead of complaining about it… DO something to change it. Sometimes, bottom up is the best approach.

Remember, those silos that have been created were put up by people; hurting people who felt a need to put up a wall. The good news is that we can reach out to one another and, little by little, bring those silos down. Yes, it’s possible and, in the end, it’s the donor who wins.
PS – On April 10th, I’ll be speaking at the Engage Conference in Philadelphia. If you’re a non-profit employee, you can join us and save $75 off the admission price by using the code VERITUS75. Come hear the great speakers and introduce yourself to me!