Got Silos in Your Nonprofit? It’s Time to Build Some Bridges!

Meet Barbara and Alan

As a nonprofit technology consultant, I spend a lot of time talking with people about their systems, staffing, and business processes. I enjoy learning how organizations and teams get their work done, and we then kick around some ideas that can make things better. For example, recently I spoke with Barbara. She’s the CFO for a mid-sized cause-and-cure nonprofit organization and it sounded like she runs a tight ship. Her small department handles everything from payroll to accounts payable to financial reconciliation. Their processes are streamlined, and the team has clear roles and responsibilities. I’d expected Barbara to be feeling great—but she was frustrated and almost ready to quit.

The problem, as she told the story, was Alan. Alan is the VP of Philanthropy. He’d been in his role for more than 15 years, and he was a fantastic fundraiser–the organization had surpassed every campaign goal for the past several years. But Alan’s team was always late with the financial information that Barbara needed. And worse than that, Alan’s data rarely (if ever) matched up with the organization’s bank account. Every month, Barbara’s team had to do hours of detective work to find a missing pledge payment, or correct coding errors, or ask Alan’s team multiple times for reports on event sponsorship purchases.

“Why is this so hard?” Barbara asked me. “It’s like he doesn’t even care about helping my team do our job. He makes it next to impossible to keep track of our revenue!”

Two Sides to Every Nonprofit Silo Story

Here’s what Barbara didn’t know: Alan’s team was using an old, unsupported fundraising database that was a terrible fit for the organization’s current needs.

  • Those coding errors? The database didn’t have space for the multi-part campaign codes that corresponded to Barbara’s financial system.
  • The pledge payments? Kept on a spreadsheet and maintained by hand.
  • Event sponsorships were paid through wire transfers, and the bank didn’t provide enough information to easily match the payments up with individual sponsors.

Alan wasn’t trying to make life terrible for Barbara. He was doing the best he could with the tools he had. For some reason, neither of them had ever sat down and talked through their shared business processes and technology in the spirit of collaboration and partnership.

Breaking down silos in your nonprofit and building bridges in their place increases efficiency and employee wellbeing while also creating a foundation for a stronger organization.

The Benefits of Working Collaboratively

I’ve heard so many versions of this same story over the years. Entrenched teams, separate technology, communication breakdowns, lots of assumptions, and years of unnecessary friction. That’s what working in departmental silos can bring. We don’t set out to create divided teams and processes, and we often don’t even realize that we’ve got them. But once those silos are built, it takes time and trust to break them down.

Other than decreased stress, there are big benefits to working collaboratively:

  • Faster access to accurate information
  • More efficient and effective business processes
  • Higher level of trust across the teams
  • Leverage automations and workflows to share data between systems
  • Reduced staff turnover

If you’ve found yourself in a silo-ed situation, you know how draining it can be. Whether you’re a Barbara, an Alan, or a member of their team, it’s challenging to work harder when you know it’s possible to work smarter. The good news is that it’s not that hard to turn things around.

Your Nonprofit Finance Office Can Lead…Carefully

Here’s what I told Barbara: I’m seeing many nonprofit CFOs experience success transforming the dynamic from opponents into collaborators. You can absolutely provide support to Alan and his team, and you’re well-positioned to initiate and lead these conversations.

The secret is identifying the problem without making it feel personal. Instead of blaming Alan, it’s time for Barbara to direct her energy into collaborative problem-solving. Someone needs to make the first move, and that move should be made with a genuine interest in learning how things are going in the other silo and having a dialogue about how you can work together to make things better.

Barbara needs to remember that there’s no point in booking a meeting with Alan if the conversation is full of blame and finger-pointing. It’s easy for any of us to look at another team’s business processes and find the flaws. The opportunity here is for Barbara to leverage her birds-eye-view of the whole organization by finding areas for improvement and making space for Alan to contribute so solutions are developed that work for everyone.

Three Ways to Start Bridge-Building

So how do you break down silos and start building bridges? Here are my three top tactics to help you make the right moves:

  1. Build relationships first. It’s much easier to have challenging conversations when you trust each other. Maybe your front-line staff can begin to start collaborating on small things with folks from other departments. Take the time to become trusted partners and you’ll be able to make improvements quickly.
  2. Leverage your tech. If you’re like most organizations, you’ve got tools that you aren’t fully using. Explore your system functionality with your colleagues. Are there features that either of you might want to use to make life easier? And if you’re in the market for new nonprofit technology, include your cross-team collaborators in the search process to make sure whatever you pick will play nicely with their tools.
  3. Document shared business processes. We all know that standard operating procedures don’t magically appear–and most of us don’t have current business processes written down. Have a couple of your cross-departmental team members work together on a starter set of procedures. I’ll bet they are able to identify improvements in your processes and do some testing before rolling the changes out to the rest of the team.

In the case of Barbara and Alan, after their teams work on small projects and process documentation together, the two department heads will have better insight into what each team needs to do their job. Barbara will be able to see the technological challenges Alan faces, as opposed to an indifference towards revenue tracking. And Alan will see the need for accurate and timely data in order to show impact, instead of a demanding co-worker always asking for information he doesn’t have.

Have Patience, Grasshopper

This bridge-building work isn’t like flipping a switch. First, you need to admit that you have a problem. It takes time, trust, and maybe a little trial-and-error. It also takes lots of communication. But the journey from silo living is worth your time and brain power. The end results include a stronger, healthier organization infused with a culture of collaboration.

As I told Barbara, there are many ways to turn things around, regardless of how long those silos have been standing. She left our meeting feeling relieved, and ready to start having different conversations with Alan and his team.

Not sure your organization is ready for a big step toward collaboration? Start small and practice for a while, then tackle bigger issues once you’ve experienced some successes. Find two actions your organization can take right now to improve communication and info-sharing. Maybe it’s something as simple as talking through campaign coding structure. Or asking for a quick tour of a colleague’s main technology platforms in the interest of finding issues that you can help to address.

Want to learn more about how to build bridges and break down silos in your nonprofit organization? Check out our on-demand webinar, “Taking Your Teams from Silo Living to Bridge Building.”

Your Turn: Have you knocked down a silo or built a bridge with colleagues? Tell us about it in the comments!