Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
4 min Read
September 29, 2021

How to ease tension between communications and development departments

Jackie Yodashkin

I once held a job in which I was regularly so frustrated by a colleague that I would routinely break out in hives when we interacted. I had to plan my wardrobe on meeting days to wear clothes that kept an outbreak under cover. I often resorted to scarves for extra coverage.

The colleague was the development director; I was the communications director. We disagreed on almost everything. When we did agree, we used different language so we often didn’t realize we agreed and would continue arguing.

Eventually, things got so bad between us that the executive director hired a mediator. If the mediator could not “fix” the situation, one of us would be shown the door. The day before my first meeting with the mediator, my colleague tendered his resignation.

Soon I found a new job. So with both of us gone, things must’ve instantly improved at the organization, right? The funny thing is, for a long while they did not. Power struggles, staffing issues, strategic disagreements, and miscommunications continued: New people, old problems — that is, until the organization did the work needed to establish and maintain healthy interdepartmental functioning.

Why does this happen at so many nonprofits? To answer this question, I interviewed 10 people who hold management, communications, and development roles at a variety of nonprofits. The organizations vary by size, geography, mission, and religious affiliation (or lack thereof). However, three key patterns of conflict emerged.

Competing goals lead to different approaches. 

— Communications professionals generally want to tell uplifting stories: how an organization helped people triumph over hunger, human-rights abuses, etc. Fundraisers usually want to tug at the heartstrings through sad stories to inspire emotion and donations. Naturally, disagreements abound over which stories to tell and how to tell them.

Data equals power.

— Data, particularly for digital campaigns (social media, email, and websites), can belong in either the development or the communications department. The staff that sends the emails, posts content on the website, or shares a Facebook fundraising event usually measures each campaign’s performance, too — the number of emails opened and links clicked on, the number of likes or shares, etc. As a result, this group usually also has the clearest understanding of what works best digitally. Digital analytics have their own language, and when data or terminology is not shared, staff in the other department may feel excluded or lack trust: Is the campaign I want to run really a bad idea based on the data, or do you just not want to run my campaign?

Organizational structure can cause dysfunction.

— The interviewees shared many examples of structures that cause conflict. For example, when development and communications departments are separate but both heads report to the executive director, the leaders regularly fight for control, power, and resources. It’s not uncommon for each one to race to the CEO’s office hoping to be the one to make the case for a particular approach. Conversely, in organizations in which one department head reports to the executive director and the other does not, you end up with a power imbalance that can lead to frustration and a sense of favoritism. Another common problem: Communications is considered a “service” and has a mandate to serve all departments, including development. Communications professionals may not be invited to help develop strategy, but they are asked to create content, often without knowing fundraisers’ needs or expectations. One communications director put it this way, “The development team … expected Comms to do as we were told.”

In such scenarios, the content often does not meet expectations; development colleagues experience frustration, and communications professionals feel undervalued and undermined, as if they were set up to fail.

Reduce Friction, Increase Collaboration

Here are five ways to reduce friction between the two departments and increase collaboration.

Establish a culture of collaboration. The culture of an organization — “how we do things around here” — sets the tone and establishes what kind of behavior is acceptable. To encourage both collaboration and everyone’s best effort, a nonprofit’s culture should include:

  • Accountability: Be accountable to one another; the mission, vision, and values; and to organizational (not departmental) goals.
  • A sense of partnership: Take time to listen to and consider productive ways to work together. Make sure your colleagues know you genuinely consider them partners.
  • Collaboration: Commit to creative problem solving togetherInvest time and energy in identifying mutually beneficial solutions. Share responsibility for implementing those solutions.
  • Feedback: Name challenges as they arise; expect and permit conflict and tension. Don’t let your nonprofit’s culture be, as one interviewee put it, “very supportive and family-like” but lacking “straightforward feedback that could potentially move the needle.”
  • Common language: Find ways to communicate that are clear for all staff members. Take time to make sure that everyone truly understands what you mean.

Resolve conflicts early. Managers at all levels must be involved and invested in supporting the development and communications departments. These teams usually have different, often competing, goals. This leads to tension that can either improve the caliber of work or tear the teams apart.

It is critical that managers understand the tension and, when necessary, resolve conflicts before they escalate. Because decisions for each team affect the work of the other, choices must be made by higher-level managers to ensure both teams meet organizational needs and goals.

For example, if both departments want to send competing email communications to the same constituents on the same day, the manager can suggest that one team send it in an email while the other use social media. This simple solution meets everyone’s needs.

Rethink your organizational structure. Depending on your nonprofit’s size and goals, certain structures may help or hinder your success. For examples of common configurations, consult the Nonprofit Communications Trends Report.

If you plan to keep communications and fundraising separate departments, Farra Trompeter of consulting firm Big Duck recommends creating “purpose statements” to “define each department’s role in connection to the organization’s mission.”

If having two departments isn’t working, consider merging them into one. If much of the strife is centered on digital projects, carve out a discrete digital team or department.

Configuration is not a silver bullet, however. Without strong management practices, the right people, and a culture of accountability and collaboration, struggles will continue.

Provide support to solve problems. Senior managers set the culture and values of an organization. The buck starts and stops with you. Model the behaviors you want to see, and hold yourself and others accountable. If you witness interdepartmental strife, do not expect someone else to fix the problem. Take responsibility and invest (time, energy, and, if needed, money in coaching or other support) to set your staff up for success.

Develop good hiring practices. Hire people who demonstrate a history of and commitment to working collaboratively; people who will support the culture you want. Be sure to have an inclusive hiring process in which people from both departments and at different levels of the organization are invited to meet with the candidates and provide feedback. Ask candidates about preferred ways of working and cultures they thrive in.

Read the original post, used with permission, as published in The Chronicle of Philanthropy.