For any organization, developing an expedient and efficient operational strategy is a primary concern. Then there’s the need to promote clear internal communication, an inclusive environment and to ensure the whole team is on board with the mission. These objectives can be tough enough for the average nonprofit to attain but when the organization has multiple offices, challenges can sometimes be multiplied.
Though Habitat for Humanity Canada’s national office is located in Toronto, they boast staff in various other locations across the country. Add two ReStore distribution centers in Brampton, Ontario and Vancouver, British Columbia, another team in Waterloo, Ontario and several remote staff and you’ve got a lot of geographical balls in the air. Keeping everyone on the same page is not easy.
Good communication is vital, but not always easy
Time zones can prove especially challenging when trying to find meeting times that are fair to employees working in a wide geographic region, but at the same time, ensuring everyone is motivated and feels part of the team is a constant concern. “A particular challenge in the nonprofit sector is the financial constraints and lack of human resources,” says Meghan Reddick, vice-president, marketing and communications. “Mission-based programs and services come first, and employee engagement can feel like a luxury not a necessity.”
But it’s vital to properly engage staff in the bigger picture of what’s going on, and ensure each employee understands the important role they play in the mission of the organization. “The risk and indirect consequence is employee burnout, or dissatisfaction and low morale.”
They’re not the only organization faced with these challenges. Take Job Skills, a nonprofit that started with four employees in one location in 1988 and has since grown to eleven locations across the GTA. “There’s been a lot of learning,” says the executive director, Nella Iasci. “We certainly have learned to support ourselves.” Like Habitat for Humanity, some of the challenges they’ve faced in running multiple offices include keeping staff connected to the organization's mission and values.
An additional challenge is keeping outside offices from working in isolation. There’s always the concern when introducing new procedures or projects, or ramping up existing ones, that everyone’s on the same page when it comes to timelines, processes and messaging. This challenge actually sits at the forefront of their strategic planning. In these and other circumstances, communication is key, Iasci explains, to ensure everyone’s speaking the same language and that a referral mechanism is in place when needed (to refer clients to programs at other offices).
Internal communication is also key. For example, if the organization is going through a change due to government funding or cuts, it’s imperative that all information is heard first internally. Job Skills has made it a priority to have communications processes that are consistent across the organization. “That will keep staff motivated, engaged and connected to the larger organization, what I refer to as the mother ship,” Iasci says with a laugh. Ensuring a consistent message is communicated to all locations at the same time and in the same way ensures no one feels isolated and everyone remains engaged.
Creating opportunities for collaboration
The need for communication is paramount for the YMCA Canada too, though they’re set up quite uniquely. Their federation structure means that one national office supports 48 autonomous YMCAs across the country, all registered charities in their own right with their own CEOs, board chairs, operations and strategic plans and local communities to whom they’re committed.
And collaboration is important. “We’re very much about working together in beneficial ways,” explains communications manager, Angela de Burger. “It makes sense locally and nationally to have the best possible chance at outcomes.” So they co-create as much as possible, with the idea that everyone can benefit from shared knowledge, skills and expertise.
That shared knowledge helps them counter another challenge – the fact that different YMCA associations struggle with different issues at differing times. A concern on the west coast, for example, may not be of concern across the nation. An important lessons they’ve learned? There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. The good news is that among all 48 associations and the many staff and volunteers working at the many locations, there has been and continues to be a tremendous amount of organizational knowledge.
That expertise is shared in a variety of ways, through webinars, conference calls and face-to-face interaction. CEOs come together a couple of times a year to discuss to share ideas and concerns. Meetings with board chairs and young leader representatives keep that knowledge pipeline flowing.
The organization has also made use of smaller working groups and task forces to deal with more specific items. And they ensure that the makeup of those meetings are representative, diverse and inclusive of the organization as a whole. “The collaboration, co-creation, is a real foundational piece to the work we do,” de Burger says, explaining that by the time a decision is made, everyone is on board. For example, they recently spent a year working on a refresh of their federation strategic plan, a roadmap for the next five years. Every effort was put into offering opportunities to share views and expertise. “We’re not creating something out of nothing, we’ve all created it and that’s how we came to this end point.”
Still, there’s always that one lesson that stands out above all. “It’s really about open communication but you’re probably going to hear that from everybody; it’s because that principle holds true,” says de Burger. Not that communication is easy. You have to be open to new ways of doing things, she says. Being tied to one approach is unhelpful; being open to what everyone brings to the table is the better choice.
Using technology to bring people together
For Habitat that means having good webinar technology and conference call solutions. They host regular webinars or ‘lunch and learns’ where staff can dial in remotely and hear about the goings-on in all department and program areas. Every few months, the president will hold an all-staff meeting from coast to coast via conference call (set up midday to accommodate everyone’s schedules), providing updates and answering questions from employees coast to coast.
They’ve also piloted Skype for Business to conduct smaller group meetings, while Skype chat helps bring remote satellite offices together. “Being able to see one another via video is great, however, we find sometimes that it takes a bit of time to connect, or the connection freezes. So sometimes it’s easier and quicker to just do straight conference calls,” says Reddick.
A pilot Yammer project is underway too. The social network enables employees to collaborate in real time across departments, geographies, and business applications. “It’s almost like Facebook, so employees are using it to post good news stories and this helps close the geographic gap.”
With everyone so busy, however, user adoption has been iffy. “Our next step is to survey employees on how they like it. It’s critical to ask your employees what they like or dislike.” She encourages nonprofits to take advantage of the many free software programs for employee engagement but cautions a tool is only as good as user adoption. “If you don’t build a process for user adoption, the tool will fall flat.” And, of course, you need to be careful to select meeting venues that are equipped with the appropriate technology requirements.
Keeping things personal
While technology is great for efficiency and reducing costs, losing that personal connection is a dangerous potential downside, says Iasci. “One of the things we work really hard at is finding balance between technological opportunities and the personal touch.” So, while they are also a fan of technology, Job Skills promotes personal one-on-one connections too, whether through monthly face-to-face meetings within the department or across the organization as well as all-staff bi-annual meetings.
Keeping everyone motivated is equally important. Toward that end, Job Skills adopted cross-divisional projects that bring staff together on a specific project across divisions. They ran an initiative that brought groups together to come up with new ideas - anything from better HR practices to new programming to team building to doing business differently. There was a lot of enthusiasm over having a say in the organization and the opportunity to work with other staff. Though the realities of cost and time commitment means the implementation has not been easy, Iasci is satisfied overall. “The positives outweigh the negatives and we want to continue to provide opportunities for these cross-divisional projects.”
To be sure, organizations with multiple offices seem to benefit when staff from all levels are included in the development of processes and projects. Habitat created the C.A.R.E. (Culture, Awareness, Renewal, Engagement) team made up of individuals from all levels of the organization who recommends policies, programs and activities to enhance the culture of the workplace. The experience has been vital in building strong teams, Reddick explains. But above all else, she says, “Employee engagement needs to be authentic and built into the culture.”
Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is president of Elle Communications and Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of SEE Change Magazine and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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