With the environment for fundraising being as challenging as any of us can remember it, it is hardly a surprise that there seems to be increasing interest in new and different approaches to income generation by charities. There’s lots of interest in finding new audiences, new products and re-thinking old attitudes and behaviours.
One question that Aldrich & Ward are finding the organisations we’re working with very exercised about is how best to organise the teams working on fundraising and marketing. There’s currently a fashion for structures that bring fundraising and brand and communications functions together (something we did at WWF-UK a while back). Some charities are being more radical than this, for example uniting the marketing of services to beneficiaries and fundraising in a single department (major cancer charity). Others are challenging the traditional hierarchical structures of charity organisations and thinking about ways of creating multi-functional teams working in matrix and project based structures. There seems to be a willingness to consider rather more imaginative approaches than the frankly rather 1970s style of top down organisation that characterises most medium sized and large UK charities.
Now I’m a structure sceptic. I think tinkering with organisational structures is too often a diversion from addressing real causes of team dysfunction, usually down to failures of leadership, strategy and culture. You don’t, fundamentally, deal with problems of people not working together via organograms.
But that doesn’t mean I think structures are unimportant. Once the foundations of clear organisational direction, effective and inspiring leadership and skilled and motivated staff are laid, how these people are organised is important. It matters both functionally and symbolically who does what tasks, who manages them and how decisions get made. Organisational design answers these question. It also, typically (although in my view wrongly) dictates what people get paid.
So how should charities best organise themselves to achieve fundraising success? I don’t think there’s one right answer, charities are just too different from each other. But I think there are some principles that are widely applicable.
Unite not divide. Organisational structures are designed to make managing operations easier. Too often though they create baronies or silos that divide people from each other. Usually the larger the number of divisions the worse this is. So a principle that aims to create as few distinct units as possible is a good one. What is the minimum practical number of teams that can be created to effectively deliver the organisational mission?
Of course ideally there should only be one team, everyone working together to deliver the mission, employing their specific skills to best effect to do so. So how can we create a structure that emphasises belonging and contribution to the wider team above loyalty to the immediate work group?
Clear accountability and decision making
In any effective organisational structure it is imperative that it’s really clear who is responsible for what and who makes which decisions. Murkiness here can undermine the whole strategy as turf wars break out between people and teams. Accountabilities and decision making can (and should be) devolved and shared but it always need to be clear where the buck stops.
People are best brought together by having common objectives, although with clear accountabilities. Teams need to work across shared objectives with visibility of how they are jointly delivering them. Making sure that objectives are shared in practice rather than theory is really important so holding everyone properly to account is critical.
Structures are very typically created around the convenience of the organisation. It makes life administratively simpler perhaps to split responsibility for different supporters according to which payment method they use. But does this work for the donor? If I have to speak to two people rather than one because I have a direct debit and have mad a cash donation that would make no sense to me. So the best organisational structures are designed from the outside in, making the charity accessible to its supporters and beneficiaries.
Charities are not, at bottom, very complex organisms and there’s no need to organise one as if it were NASA. The most effective structure are simple ones that are easily grasped by the people in the organisation and outside it. If you find that the new structure needs more explaining to your team than a handful of slides, it’s probably too complicated. Occam’s razor should apply here, when choosing between two approaches to designing an organisation, you need a very good reason not to choose the simplest.
Structure is a tool to enable the organisation to be managed more effectively. It needs to adapt to changing circumstances and should be able to do that without needing to be redesigned. Having a major organisational restructure every couple of years is really not to be recommended. Flexibility needs to be built in to any structure so that as the business changes and people come and go it can respond quickly.
It’s very unlikely that what is wrong with your fundraising is all down to how your charity is structured. But changing your organisational design can be part of the answer to turning yourself from a charity that fundraises to a fundraising charity.