REVIEW: Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos, by Heidi K Gardner

A new book on the need for collaborative working in the professional services leads Claire Routley to question whether fundraisers are as collaborative as they like to think, particularly when it comes to their non-fundraising colleagues.

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This well-researched text by Harvard Law School’s Heidi K. Gardner on the benefits of collaborative working is aimed specifically at professional services firms (e.g. accountants, lawyers, consultants), so we need to be wary of extrapolating too readily from this particular commercial sector niche – with its

own working practices and culture – into the non-profit sector. Nonetheless, the book is helpful in stimulating new thinking about how we might break down barriers in our sector, and the benefits of doing so.

The early chapters focus on making the case why collaboration is important, and, most notably, how teams of cross-disciplinary specialists working on client accounts can enhance revenue and profits. As well as these monetary benefits, Gardner’s research shows that collaboration can enhance the level of customer retention, increase innovation and decrease levels of risk. It can also help to increase employee retention: she describes how a higher number of internal contacts in a firm can make an employee feel more committed to their job and their employer, its values and goals, and also can enhance the meaning of work.

This focus on the ‘why’ of collaboration is important to the intended professional readers who Gardner positions as lone-wolves or ‘stars’, who may be instinctively reluctant to collaborate outside of their specialism. The significant and ongoing focus in the text on making the case for collaboration perhaps speaks to the organisational cultures where Gardner’s research focuses.

“Gardner’s research shows that collaboration can enhance the level of customer retention, increase innovation and decrease levels of risk. It can also help to increase employee retention.”

As the charity sector is often positioned as lagging behind the business sector in its approach, it was nice to feel pleasantly superior at this point. In our sector, we’ve known for some time that donors who have multiple engagements with an organisation are more committed and, anecdotally, data analysis in a number of charities seems to suggest that those supporters who already have multiple relationships are the most likely to take an additional action on the charity’s behalf. And, one might argue, unlike the ‘lone wolves’ of the professional services firm, fundraisers often collaborate across teams or specialisms (although most would probably agree that there are still some barriers to ideal collaboration to overcome in many, if not most, organisations).

However, as so often, pride comes before a fall. I was several chapters into the book before I realised that my initial reactions had all assumed collaboration across an extended fundraising team. Admittedly, I was reading the book partly as a legacy fundraiser keen to encourage other fundraisers to engage in legacy conversations, but still, it hadn’t occurred to me to think about collaboration across the wider organisation – showing that, for me at least, silo-thinking is still deeply embedded.

The realisation made me reflect upon what fundraisers could achieve through closer collaboration with their colleagues who provide services. In some fundraising specialisms, this type of collaboration is essential – trust fundraisers, for example, have to work with their service delivery colleagues in the design of projects to submit to potential fundraisers. However, there might be opportunities for us to collaborate on a deeper level.

Heidi K. Gardner

“Gardner advises leaders seeking to build collaboration to focus on systems and structures such as performance measurement and compensation that encourage and support a collaborative approach.”

For me, in particular, Gardner’s book encouraged me to reflect on my experiences in the hospice world. One of my first jobs was in a local hospice, which, at the time, wasn’t particularly au fait with individual giving or developing individual supporter relationships. What could we potentially have learned if we’d worked more closely with the nurses who delivered our services, and experimented with applying the hospice philosophy of patient care (e.g. seeing a person holistically, giving them choice) into our donor programme, especially given that there was a discrepancy in experience for anyone who used our services as a patient or family member, while also engaging with us as a donor.

However, that’s not to say that fundraisers should always be learning from their colleagues and not vice versa – in other situations, experienced fundraisers will have much to teach their service delivery colleagues. In my later experiences in a volunteering charity, for example, the approach to donor care that we researched and developed when setting up a new fundraising team could have informed a more joined-up, higher-quality approach to volunteer care.

How might we boost collaboration in our organisations?

For research rooted within the non-profit sector, rather than Gardner’s, many fundraisers might find it helpful to turn to Adrian Sargeant and Jen Shang’s Great Fundraising report, which focuses on how fundraising can flourish as part of an integrated culture.

However, one perspective that Gardner offers that’s not found within Sargeant and Shang’s work is a focus on what can be achieved at different levels of hierarchy within an organisation. For example, she advises that individuals seek to build trust, both in their competence and interpersonally, while learning about the organisation’s offerings and developing the capability to dig further into customers’ broader issues. Managers, she suggests, should focus on building a collaborative team whose members are committed to the project and accountable for its results, and with roles, responsibilities and standards that help engender collaboration.

And finally, she advises leaders seeking to build collaboration to focus on systems and structures such as performance measurement and compensation that encourage and support a collaborative approach. Although the precise approaches and techniques might differ in our sector, thinking about collaboration as a multi-level approach with particular requirements at each level of the hierarchy, for me, offered a very helpful new perspective that could be explored and tested in nonprofits.

One of the final points in the book, and also a useful takeaway for charities, is that any attempt to build collaboration should be undertaken using a change management approach. She advises organisations to:

  • Develop a compelling story: ensure that colleagues can see the point of the change and that the story speaks to their motivations, and is communicated effectively
  • Model the desired collaborative approaches: make sure that staff members can see collaborative behaviours employed at the leadership level and by influencers within the organisation
  • Reinforce the desired behaviours: ensure all the ‘management levers’ (such as performance management, compensation, technology) work in support of collaboration rather than against it
  • Develop new collaborative capabilities and confidence: ensure that leaders support staff with adequate training and coaching.

In summary, Gardner makes a compelling case for the benefits of collaboration within the professional services sector. Intuitively, it feels as if a number of those benefits would translate into the nonprofit situation – although further evidence would be needed to prove this. Her pointers as to how collaboration might be enhanced at different levels in the organisation also offer a helpful framework, and to me at least, a new perspective on thinking about how to develop greater levels of collaboration within an organisation. Finally, framing the ideas within a broader change management approach helps to ensure that any changes would be not only well envisioned but also successfully implemented.

Heidi K Gardner. 2016. Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos. Harvard: Harvard Business Review Press.

Other Critical Fundraising Blogs by Claire Routley

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