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The Case for Collaboration: How Development, Communications, and Programs Can Work Together

The state of the world has made us want to connect with more of you, more often. For the rest of 2020, the Campbell & Company Communications team is sharing a new article every week that explores a topic in case development and fundraising communications, drawn from our work.

Whether it’s thinking about how to approach fundraising communications against the backdrop of current events or tackling an evergreen challenge we see time and time again in nonprofits across the sector, these articles focus on practical tips to empower fundraising leaders in their day-to-day work. Subscribe to the series here.

“You all need to take Fundraising 101.”

It was a tense meeting after a tense day within the broader context of a tense relationship between those of us on the program side and the fundraisers. Still, I was surprised. Is this how colleagues are supposed to talk to one another? Aren’t we on the same team? Sometimes it was hard to tell.

I glanced at a few others on the program staff after the development team member uttered the rude sentence. I saw a few wide eyes, a slack jaw. But from the senior program leaders, I saw very little reaction at all. They had been down this road before. They were used to the challenge of collaborating, though they might have used more colorful language to describe the dynamic.

At that time, I was working at my alma mater for a living-learning community that serves first-generation, Pell-eligible college students. It was my first “real” job after grad school, and I was learning the ropes quickly.

Much to my surprise, one of the hardest parts of my new role was working with people who were supposed to be our collaborators—the fundraisers and the communications team. What I didn’t know then was that I was walking into a set of challenges that many nonprofits face—one that will sound and feel familiar to many who work in the sector.

In my work with clients, I see this pattern all the time. It goes something like this:

  • Program staff are swamped with executing the mission of the organization, whatever that may be: running the food bank, serving the patients, doing the research, curating the gallery, teaching the students, etc. Usually they do it on a shoestring budget and with a staff spread paper-thin. They might as well be pulling rabbits out of hats, and often grow frustrated when fundraising or communications folks make more demands, last minute requests, and otherwise add to the already heavy load.
  • Development staff are swamped with finding the resources to support the mission of the organization: chasing down donor pledges, running a direct mail program, managing more relationships than they probably should be, trying to keep data fresh, planning for a capital campaign—all to hit a dollar goal that may feel overly ambitious. They often grow frustrated when program staff or communications folks put development work last on their to-do lists. Don’t they know that without funding this all falls apart?
  • Communications staff are swamped with serving as “the voice” of the organization. They have to speak for every internal stakeholder to every external stakeholder, sometimes at what feels like cross purposes. In many organizations, they are understaffed but still have to pivot at a moment’s notice to meet the demands of every organizational “client” they serve: admissions needs a pamphlet, the events team needs a video, the CEO needs her talking points, etc.

They may grow frustrated at the demands of development or program staff, who don’t seem to understand that they are being pulled in a million different directions.

Because we’re all so busy, finding time to work together across our departmental silos feels like one more thing to do—but it’s actually the key to unlocking efficiency, effectiveness, and impact. Program, development, and communications staff all execute mission-critical work; none can succeed without the shared strength and success of all three. And nowhere is that clearer than when you work to articulate your case for support.

Effective collaboration is the path to creating a stronger case for support and ultimately a stronger organization.

Why collaborate?

Because process leads to product.

A strong case for support doesn’t happen by magic. It happens by getting the right voices around the table and by taking their input seriously. In other words, a strong case comes to life through strong collaboration. You simply can’t have a great final product without a great process.

Just as importantly, an inclusive process builds understanding and buy-in—which are critical elements when it comes time to share your case with donors. After a collaborative case process, program and communications folks are ready (and usually more willing!) to serve as effective ambassadors and storytellers, because they are sharing a message they helped create and advocating for priorities they helped determine.

Because money follows mission—or at least it should.

The goal of a case for support is to drive philanthropic investment toward the organizational mission.

It sounds simple enough, but without collaboration it is nearly impossible for fundraisers to know the areas of greatest opportunity, or for communications staff to write about those opportunities in a compelling way. Well-intentioned “donor-centered” case work can drive mission creep if you aren’t careful.

Money should follow mission; mission should never chase money. Collaboration helps everyone keep their eyes on the prize.

Because teamwork makes the dream work.

None of us work in the nonprofit sector to get rich or because it’s such a breeze. We do this work because we believe in it. And when we succeed, it’s because we each contribute something unique and valuable to the mission of the organization.

Collaboration honors each area of expertise and leverages each skillset for the good of the mission. Sure, collaboration takes time and energy—but not nearly as much time and energy as not collaborating. No one benefits from disconnect, but everyone benefits from collaboration.

How can my organization collaborate more effectively?

Make it official.

One of the greatest barriers to collaboration is that most of the time, it’s literally “not our job.” It’s not written into job descriptions, it’s not included in goal setting or evaluations, it’s not an item on meeting agendas, etc.

Teams and leadership can ensure collaboration by formalizing processes and expectations around it—and the case development process can be a great place to start.

Make it regular.

In every campaign case project, the Campbell & Company Communications team uses a process that begins with bringing a range of development, communications, and program staff together, along with executive and volunteer leaders. We often hear that this is the first time that all these stakeholders have worked together in months, years, or maybe ever.

Don’t wait until you’re launching a major campaign to start collaborating across teams. Identify the regular touchpoints or opportunities for collaboration in your operation, and if you find them lacking, create them. Some examples that I have seen work well with our clients include:

  • Sharing “mission moments” in all-hands meetings
  • Providing organization-wide message training
  • Identifying team liaisons to ensure regular communication
  • Creating “shadowing” opportunities where fundraisers or communications folks can see program work firsthand

Bring in outside help.

It’s hard to be a prophet in your own land. Sometimes you need to hire someone to help you collaborate effectively.

Meaningful, effective collaboration can require breaking habits, changing culture, and navigating tricky personalities. When we find ourselves in the tense meetings like the one I described above, it can feel like a stalemate. In that scenario, it’s hard to argue with the value of expert, unbiased, third-party guidance. Don’t be afraid to make that investment when needed.

To go far, go together.

Months after that tense meeting, our team found a way forward.

I took on the role of liaison with the foundation and held regular meetings with grant writers and other development folks. We started doing a better job communicating across teams, tracking metrics, reporting out on impact, and even identifying good opportunities for donors to interact with the students we served. And yes, the program team learned a bit more about fundraising.

We still had room to grow, but wasn’t that the point? By collaborating and holding each other accountable, we were finding new ways to inspire investment in our work, to deepen our impact, and to fulfill our mission. We were in a good place. And we got there the only way we ever could have—together.

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