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Collaboration is key to breaking down siloes in charities & nonprofits

Collaboration is key to breaking down siloes in charities & nonprofits


If thirty-four years in the social impact space taught me anything, it is this: There is no greater skill than the ability to collaborate. This can equate to collaboration within an organization and across disciplines like the fundraising team collaborating with the marketing and communications team or finance with program delivery. It can mean external collaboration across organizations with similar or complementary missions. 

Why collaboration matters

The pandemic and decades in the sector have deepened my belief that collaboration is critical to our success as mission-driven organizations in a sector in need of change. Often what keeps us from making needed change is not knowing where to begin. For collaborations to work across the sector, we need to start within our individual organizations to break down silo mentalities.

Workplace silos are created when people with similar goals and expertise work together to the exclusion of others. They usually happen within a particular discipline so you might see a fundraising silo, a marketing silo and a finance silo. They are a necessary and effective part of getting work done. However, the term has come to be known primarily for its negative connotations, including divisive politics, turf wars, resource hoarding and a focus on the goals and objectives of the silo over those of the organization. Silo mentality creates problems for individuals, teams and the organization.

Have you worked in an organization that looks anything like this? Let’s say there are six teams: Marketing/Communications, Philanthropy, Finance and Administration, Community Programs, Human Resources, and a Management Team that includes the leaders of each of these teams. How often do you hear comments like this?

  • You need to stay in your swim lane.
  • That really belongs in Philanthropy not Mar/Comm.
  • I need that information now. It can’t wait. I don’t care what else is on your desk.
  • No, you’re not privy to that information; it’s only for our team to know.
  • You don’t really understand. You’re not a (fill in the blank for a job function other than your own.).
  • What exactly is your team working on? Does anyone know what they do?
  • We are always picking up that team’s slack.
  • That’s not our/my job.

Each of these statements is a symptom of a problem with silo mentality. It occurs and thrives in organizations where leadership fails to create an environment in which multi-disciplinary and cross-func­tional teams collaborate. In some cases, toxic leaders may even perpetuate the silos with a divide-and-conquer approach to leadership.

Breaking down the silos

It takes a concerted effort at team and relationship building to effect­ively break down silos. Silos are so powerful and seductive they can evolve and take hold of your organization’s culture. They can wreak havoc on your company’s sense of community and lead to higher than necessary turnover. They may also cause a lack of connectivity that leads to feelings of isolation among staff in your workplace. According to Tiziana Casciaro, Amy C. Edmondson, and Sujin Jang in an article for Microsoft Workplace Insights, “the vast majority of innovation and business-development opportunities lie in the interfaces between functions, offices or organizations. The integrated solutions that most customers want, but companies wrestle with developing, require horizontal collaboration.”

So, what can be done?

First and foremost is the need to develop the leadership team, establish rules of engagement, and model collaboration there. Then leadership team members need to lead discussions within the team they lead to identify the issues and strategize a way forward. As an example, in one organization, the philanthropy team members identi­fied a persistent problem with the marketing and communications team. A joint meeting of the two teams to brainstorm the issues and possible solutions made it quickly obvious that much of the dysfunc­tion came down to speaking a different language, poorly aligned workplans and timelines and a lack of communication.
The first step towards a fix was the inclusion of a marketing and communica­tions person at philanthropy team meetings and vice versa. Casciaro, Edmondson, and Jang call these individuals cultural brokers.

Culture brokers work inside and out

Just as culture brokers can work in communities to bridge the divide between community groups with opposing views, they can work inside organizations to bridge the gap between different disciplines. Culture brokers act as go-betweens, allowing people in different functions or geographies to collaborate with minimal disruption to their day-to-day routine. They work to build relationships and under­standing between teams and across the organization.

For teams brought together for a short-term project with both specific and short-term objectives, this minimally disruptive approach ensures everyone has all the information they need to be successful.

A visual reminder of collaboration

Often a simple exercise can help break down silos by providing team members with an opportunity to truly understand how inter­dependent they are. For example, begin with flip chart paper on the walls — enough pieces for the number of staff at the table. Then ask each person to pick a spot, write on the paper their major job responsibilities and sit down when they are done. Leave as much time as needed for everyone to complete the task. Often, once folks sit down, they’ll glance at someone else’s page and remember a piece of their job they’d forgotten. Allow time for them to add to their list.

Then ask them to read each of the pages. Wherever they see a job responsibility in which they play a part, no matter how small, they put their initials next to the item. For example, the Director of Marketing & Communications has included the organization’s quarterly newsletter on her list. Initials on that item came from the Director of Philanthropy who provides content, the Office Manager who prepares the mailing, the Special Events Manager who provides content, the Database manager who checks the donor recognition lists, and so on. For the Philanthropy & Marketing team, you might see the addition of the Finance Manager who ensures there is suffi­cient postage for mailing, the Community Initiatives Manager who provides content, the Executive Director/CEO who does a quarterly message and provides final approval on the overall piece. The result is a visual reminder of how closely they work together and how no single person or team can be successful without the others.

Get your own house in order

Collaboration between organizations is more complex but equally important. However, to effectively collaborate outside our organ­izations and partner with government, the corporate sector and other social profit organizations, our own house must be in order. Dysfunctional leadership teams within organizations make cross-col­laboration for collective impact difficult because team members may find themselves competing for opportunities to represent the organiz­ation to external stakeholders rather than simply identifying the best potential partner for a project based on skills, knowledge and experi­ence.

Further, if the importance and placement of the collaboration as part of the organization’s overall strategic objectives and priorities is not agreed upon, competing priorities can cause conflict, and the allocation of organizational resources to the collaboration will be up for debate. Internal harmony or at least effective team relationships are essential before venturing into external collaborations.

An excerpt from “Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and cocreate a new social impact sector”. 

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada, nor is this post an endorsement of this book. 

Maryann Kerr is Chief Happiness Officer, CEO and principal consultant with the Medalist Group. Maryann is a governance, leadership and culture specialist and has worked in the social profit sector for 34 years and helped raise over $110M.  She has led at the local, provincial, national and international level and is passionate about her family, feminism, and continuous learning.

Maryann participated on many social profit boards and committees and her first book, published by Civil Sector Press Tarnished: Let’s rethink, reimagine and co-create a new social impact sector was published in December 2021. Maryann earned her CFRE in 1997 and her master’s in organizational leadership in 2016. She is currently exploring opportunities for a PhD. 

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