Talk Amongst Yourselves: The Importance of Internal Communications

January 13, 2016

Since I joined Philanthropy Northwest two years ago, we have doubled in size. We now have staff and consultants working across five time zones, seemingly overnight — a pattern we've observed in our network as nonprofits and foundations scale up. Such growth unleashes great potential, while posing new challenges. This time last year, we made a conscious decision to improve how we work together, asking, "How can we step up our communication skills and align them with our growth, increasing remote participation and cross-team collaboration? 

Collaborating and fostering collaboration among our members is a large part of our work. Effective internal communications practices — sharing information within our organization, as opposed to what you would see on our blog and social media channels — are crucial to our ability to build knowledge within the enterprise and coordinate our activities to maximize impact. We need to keep one another informed, whether it's about the status of a grant proposal, questions about specialized topics, excitement about learning something new or even mentorship offers to one another.

It's a missed opportunity to wait for staff meetings or memos to do all this. Meetings and memos are more effective when we also have regular, less formal means of ongoing communication. Like anything else, the more frequently and consistently we talk amongst ourselves, the better we get at it — and the better we get at getting value from it. 

Assessing Our Needs

Not only has our staff scaled up and become more geographically dispersed since 2014, but our organizational aspirations have also climbed. In positioning Philanthropy Northwest to achieve new aspirations and ensure all of our staff could contribute to these ambitions, we needed more than new tools; we needed to re-set our internal expectations and build and exercise new muscles to bring this together and make it work. We had to commit to talking more — and not just about easy topics. The more we did that, the more we built trust and the more comfortable we got with talking. And the more comfortable we got with talking, the more generative conversations we began to have — in our staff and team meetings, at each other's desks and in the hallways. It's not just tools we shifted but culture — we went from "heads down" to "walk around."

We've also experimented with more internal communications channels, both low- and high-tech, to facilitate all this informal information-sharing. If you've been to our offices, you've seen large pieces of paper posted in our hallways, brimming with ideas, offers and requests. That one of our low-tech approaches. From our computers, we log in to a "virtual water cooler" chat board to share information, post questions and alert colleagues to tasty snacks in the office kitchen. This is a high-tech approach that enables remote staff and consultants to engage in office conversations, too. We've also taken steps to make our staff and team meetings more inclusive and useful to our remote staff, including investing in technology to share presentations and provide video-conference capacity.

Tools to Try

Now that we've established the what and why of internal communications, we have to have a frank conversation about the how: tools. There's good news, and there's more news. The good news is that communications tools are getting better and more affordable. The more news is that because new tools are being developed and keep improving, you may fall into the trap of constantly evaluating tools, failing to adopt any tool fully across your organization.

My advice is that rather than jumping into new communications tools, you start by periodically evaluating your practices and needs. An annual review is a good baseline, though your mileage may vary. If you see evidence pent up need for better communications, it's already time to take stock. Talk to your colleagues at other organizations to find out what they are using and what they like or don't like about it. Find the communication tools that match what you need for the near future, and take comfort in the fact that your decision is never set in stone. 

It's good practice to have a small team of two or three people test a tool to determine whether it's worth rolling it out to the whole staff. Social media evangelist Sree Sreenivasan says, "be an early tester and late adopter." In other words, be sure the tool actually helps and can slot into staff workflow. When you do roll out a tool for use across your organization, your tool testers become your trainers. You can and probably should re-evaluate your practices and needs on a rolling basis, as your needs evolve.

Our Experience

Over the past two years, Philanthropy Northwest has developed a list of capabilities using a variety of tools.

  • In-Office Communication: We started with Yammer, then moved to Chatter when we began using Salesforce as our database. Both of these options allowed us to communicate with our fellow staff members. We never really built separate groups for our teams in these tools, mostly because the user interface was a bit busy, or the need wasn't ripe. Intra-team communication is now something we want to explore, and our Communications team has been evaluating Slack and Flowdock for possible adoption. We see a path to using these tools to handle chatting in our office and with consultants and staff working remotely, and to create both in-team and cross-team / enterprise channels. In addition, we use low-tech in-office communications methods such as large sheets of paper posted about with ideas, offers and requests. We have an informal lunch time which staff join as convenient — it's a nice time to catch up on non-work and work topics — or reserve as an option for brown-bag training sessions.
  • Communication With Remote Colleagues: We have taken steps to improve our video conferencing for staff and team meetings so they can include off-site staff and consultants. We are using RingCentral and RingCental Meetings voice over IP (VOIP) system that supports video conferencing. We are also investing time and energy in training staff in its use, and taking time to optimize the AV equipment in our conference room.
  • Cross-Team Communication: Each team — e.g., The Giving Practice — sends out a weekly email with bullet points summarizing the week's activities and what's coming next. We also anticipate adding team specific and cross-team channels to our online chat solution in the next year.
  • Communicating Individual Work to the Enterprise: We use our Salesforce database to record and share quick notes summarizing interactions we have with members, which we also share in a weekly digest to all staff. This allows us to learn from one another, deepening our knowledge of what's going on and emerging trends in in our sector and region. It also allows us to pick up one another's work when necessary — like when a colleague is out sick or on vacation. (Hope you're having a great sabbatical, Lyn Hunter!)
  • Miscellaneous Collaborations and Working Groups: We use a combination of in-person meetings, conference calls and video chats using Skype or Google Hangouts. For project-based work requiring light project management, such as sharing files and project milestones, we've used Basecamp.

Because so much of our work in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors demands collaboration, internal communications tools are essential to our working effectively. Since your organization's needs and capabilities are always evolving, your approach to evaluating tools should be incremental and iterative. You can limit some of your iteration to a working group to use and evaluate the tools, making recommendations about what you roll out across your staff. Last, and most importantly, make time for training, encourage staff to share how they are using internal communications tools and the value they get from them. The best tools are only useful when all can wield them.

Kelley Bevans is communications and database manager at Philanthropy Northwest. She can be reached at kbevans@philanthropynw.org.