The Problem of Communications and Brand in Siloed Nonprofits

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Music notes

February 19, 2015;The Guardian

We all know them: Organizations that are made up of collections of things. Universities comprising multiple departments and schools. Multi-service centers with twenty or thirty programs, all functioning relatively independently. These can sometimes be hard to corral. Charities large enough to house several departments often silo those departments so that they work almost as separate entities within a whole. This may cause many types of organizational problems, including hampering the way the outside world understands the organization.

So what is to be done? Should you try to force everyone to get on message? Find a tag line that fits the whole and insist it be attached to all communications? Exercise tight control? Or maybe you could think about it another way. Something has to knit the whole together to make the parts sing in harmony to the community—find that and work with it. Creating a concordant voice in a multiple-part organization has more to do with everyone’s knowledge of, and commitment to, the whole song as well as their particular parts than with any structural changes or imposition of voice.

This short article in the Guardian errs a bit in addressing communications and branding as the way into a larger problem of disintegration, which occurs over time and can get very firmly anchored, and that can be very thorny. In the end, this requires recommitment of the organization’s participants to a central mission and value proposition. That’s something that cannot be forced, but must be crafted; it is the form within the rock that needs to get sculpted.

In a way, the article belies its own message by addressing the solution as integrated communications rather than an integrated organization. But it does provide some useful cautions in a set of myths about how to approach that sense of unity/harmony. The myths are:

  1. “To achieve integration, we’d have to restructure the whole charity.” Structural change is not necessarily needed. In fact, cultural change is more effective. If all departments collaborate and commit to shared objectives, any disconnection between departments will be eliminated. Sherine Krause, executive director of fundraising, communications, and policy at Action for Children, says, “Structure is just one part of the issue. It’s much more about the way you work together.”
  2. “We can’t do this because we haven’t got a massive budget.” Similar to the first myth, large advertising budgets are not necessary. If the entire organization is working together and focused on the same mission, the amount of an organization’s budget will be most effective. Basically, the charity will get the “biggest bang for the buck.”
  3. “This doesn’t apply to me, my audience is different.” Debbie West, head of fundraising and direct response at Good Agency, said, “Audiences do not classify themselves through their transaction. They care about the cause and the impact they will have, and often embrace multiple ways of supporting it.” In other terms, do not ever assume that someone is not a part of the organization’s audience. Each department working together has the potential to bring in donors and supporters from a wide range of demographics.
  4. “But we’ve got completely different objectives, so our messages will be very different.” If each department is a part of the same organization, then everyone is working toward the same mission. While teams will have different objectives to meet, the overall goals of the organization will be consistent—and so should the communications plan.

In September 2005, NPQpublished an article that explained:

“Without planning, our work too often functions in crisis-response mode and, as a result, tends to be scattered in its effect. When work is scattered, capacity never builds, nothing feels solid, and staff and members become demoralized. Just as an organization’s strategic plan clarifies its program goals and distributes resources to match group priorities, an accompanying communications plan helps an organization plan systematic communications work.”

So, ensuring that all staff and volunteers understand and are passionate about the organization’s mission is the strongest tool in being able to put out a consistent, effective message to the community.—Erin Lamb and Ruth McCambridge