people talking
Shutterstock

Does your workplace feel a little like Congress lately? Is everyone working for his or her own team and not for the collective betterment of the company? Are you having trouble reaching across the aisle to get the information you need to do your job well—or at all?

Although nonprofit employees are united by the mission of their organizations, I’ve found that these issues plague nonprofits as much as they do any other type of company. While we may have one end result in mind, we’re easily divided by our functions and how we fulfill that mission.

The most frequent clash in the nonprofit world is between program staff and fundraising staff. Program employees often accuse fundraisers of focusing on money over mission, misrepresenting the organization’s work, or exploiting clients. On the flip side, fundraisers get frustrated when program staff don’t key them in on important developments, making it hard for them to raise the money necessary for the programs to function. Add in the fact that nonprofits are perpetually understaffed, and you have a stressed and overwhelmed staff—which can lead to snappish behavior and ineffective fundraising and program development.

Whether you’re also part of a nonprofit or your company is simply divided into invisible silos that can’t seem to play nice, here are a few of my best tips to bury the hatchet with your co-workers and figure out how to communicate better.

1. Clarify Your Role

This seems basic, but it’s likely the root of many of your problems. In my situation, as a fundraiser, I expect that all staff—no matter their designated roles—will participate in fundraising at some level. However, if they’ve never had to do that in a previous role or don’t fully understand why I’m making the request, I’ll often encounter some resistance. To smooth things over, I explain what I need and why I need it. Otherwise, to people who don’t have a lot of experience with my function, it looks like I’m asking them to do my job for me.

Also, it’s often helpful to clearly state how your role can help them in return. For instance, as someone who regularly communicates with funders, I explain what my organization does and how we do it on a daily basis. I also meet with foundations that support several other nonprofits in our field and have a sense of best practices. This makes me a perfect participant in any program planning meeting, especially if the leader is concerned about whether or not a new program can get funded.

Once your co-workers know exactly what you need from them to fulfill your role and how you can help them in return, you’ll find that communication and collaboration becomes much easier.

2. Attend the Other Side’s Meetings

Honestly, the biggest communication problem in many organizations is often that we aren’t actually communicating with each other! Now, I know that no one needs another event on the calendar, but if you’ve noticed a breakdown in collaboration or communication between departments, maybe it’s time to drop in on the other side’s regular meetings. That way, they don’t have to take notes, type them up, and send them to you (which you’ll probably never read anyway). Instead, by being present, you can interpret the information immediately.

I love having my colleagues sit in on fundraising meetings—they often have great ideas or feedback on issues that my department is facing. Sometimes the agenda is as simple as a program update, but occasionally, someone from another department will suggest a completely new way to think about a project—which means a new way to fundraise for it, too.

These meetings also allow you to better understand your colleagues’ challenges. If you think they’re being ridiculous for hounding you for certain information or lazy for not addressing what you think is a stellar idea, that may change when you start to understand their entire strategy or when you discover how much work goes into one of their projects.

3. Planning is Power

In my organization, the most friction between staff arises over schedules and expectations. Fundraising employees are in charge of managing proposals and reporting deadlines to foundations, and sometimes those deadlines require pretty ridiculous turnaround times.

If program employees are caught off guard by those deadlines to collect and analyze the necessary data, they can—understandably so—become frustrated and stressed. And sometimes, because of the complexity of the data and information needed, it may be impossible to turn it around in that timeframe. If that’s the case, the fundraising staff can negotiate and set different expectations with the funders, but they, too, need time to do that—meaning the programming staff can’t wait until the last minute to request an extension.

Depending on your organization, something as simple as setting up a shared calendar can help you communicate internal and external deadlines. It's also not a bad idea to address any concerns right when they pop up, like when a grant confirmation letter arrives, so the fundraising staff has more time to negotiate or the whole team can work together to create a plan B.

As much as email, mobile phones, and the internet have helped us keep in touch, effective communication remains a challenge for every workplace. At the end of the day, remember that you’re all in it together and that your success depends on everyone doing their job well. (And if all else fails, listen to Otis and try a little tenderness.)