Yes, it’s Halloween week, time for ghosts and goblins, vampires and ghouls. But if you work in the nonprofit sector, there’s something far scarier out there…silos!
OK, just to be clear: I’m not talking about the grain-storing kind here. I’m talking about the metaphorical kind—the type that compartmentalizes our organizations, divides the efforts of the social sector, and generally keeps my sandbox separate from yours. In recent years, “silos” have been highlighted as a critical problem within the nonprofit community, hindering the sector’s effectiveness. At this month’s annual conference of the Hawaii Alliance of Nonprofit Organizations (HANO), talk of silos and their threat to the sector permeated keynote presentations, break-out sessions, and informal conversations alike.
What is it exactly about silos that is so scary? Maybe it’s their insidious nature—that they can often exist without challenge, quietly reinforcing the status quo in the name of “efficiency” or “delegation.” Or rather, maybe it’s the alternative to silos that truly scares us: creating deep and meaningful collaboration is certainly far more difficult than keeping to ourselves, plowing ahead, blinders on. Like toddlers at a playground, many organizations are content with “parallel play,” independently pursuing the same goals and serving the same populations, curiously observing others alongside without actually engaging them.
Hawaii Community Foundation President & CEO, Kelvin Taketa, pointed out at the HANO conference, however, this approach just isn’t going to cut it in the long run. The philanthropy landscape has shifted in recent years, favoring those who focus on mission over organization. And just as the children on the playground will grow to realize that cooperative play is both more interesting and more rewarding, nonprofits too will need to realize that cooperation and partnership—true partnership—with other “players” will increase community impact and ultimately advance their missions. As Melissa Kushner, Founder and Executive Director of goods for good put it, we need to turn our sector’s silos into curtains, to create opportunities for collaboration that can help all organizations accelerate their work toward achieving social impact.
So where can nonprofits begin swapping out those silos for curtains? Numerous posts have been written about addressing intra-organizational silos with greater cooperation and integration—for example, with regard to marketing, social media, fundraising, and organizational development. But I think it’s important for nonprofits to think about tackling three types of silos beyond their own walls:
Silos Within the Nonprofit Sector: I can think of no single reading that makes the case for cross-sector collaboration better than John Kania and Mark Kramer’s piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Collective Impact. As the authors point out, large-scale social problems simply cannot be effectively addressed by any single organization. Rather, they require coordinated efforts along the continuum of the problem to effect meaningful change—and these efforts require broad, cross-sector coordination. Shifting from isolated impact to collective impact requires not just partnership, but a focus and commitment to shared objectives across organizations in order to succeed. In Hawaii, Hui Kupa’a, a joint partnership between the State of Hawaii and Hawaii’s nonprofit social service providers, actively utilizes the Collective Impact framework to address some of the state's most pressing and complex social issues.
Silos Between Nonprofit and For-profit Sectors: Unfortunately, the very name of the sectors sets up an “us” vs. “them” dynamic: a nonprofit is the antithesis of a for-profit. But the explosion of social entrepreneurship in recent years demonstrates that this dichotomy can be a false one, and that serving the common good can be sound from both a business and community perspective. Nonprofits must shift from seeing corporations solely as sources of funding, and instead as potential partners in solving problems and increasing effectiveness. This article on Toyota’s donation of expertise—rather than money—to the Food Bank for New York City beautifully demonstrates the results of bridging the nonprofit/for-profit silos to benefit community.
Silos Between Service Providers and Recipients: This silo may be the most difficult of all to break down, because the chasm between those serving and those served can seem the widest. And yet, nonprofit organizations often speak of empowering those served, and giving voice to all stakeholders. Creating mechanisms that invite clients to participate in problem solving and that value their perspectives can cultivate a climate of mutual respect and collaboration. Just as school boards have increasingly given students a place at the table, nonprofits might similarly consider client representation on their board of directors. While not appropriate for every organization, the inclusion of a constituent on a nonprofit’s board can provide a firsthand, unique view into the organization’s service delivery and community perceptions.
How does your organization tackle the problem of silos? How has swapping curtains for silos impacted your organization's work, internally or externally?