You’ve heard this before. Someone speaks up in a meeting, lamenting the fact that the organization is siloed and uncoordinated, and that we need to work better across teams. Nodding heads all around. Typically what follows is a desire for more meetings and communication, but sometimes it is a more serious rethink of the organization structure. Before launching a reorganization, it’s worth considering the strengths of what you already have in place. The concentration of activities around a particular topic or skill that results in siloing, also develops expertise in an area that would not occur without the sustained focus.
In many cases the choice of organizational structure involves trading off what to “silo” and what to coordinate. A functional advocacy non-profit organized around policy, communications, and government relations teams “silos” skills. An issue focused organization where specific teams lead campaigns each with their own policy, government relations, organizing, and communications staff, silo a particular issue area, at the expense of coordinating across multiple issue areas.
There is no perfect organizational structure, each comes with strengths and weaknesses, though some are better suited for certain scenarios. Below is a discussion of three common models, all of which have their analogs in the private for-profit sector.
The Functional Advocacy Organization
Functional advocacy organizations typically includes departments or sub-teams structured around skills such as policy, organizing, communications, government relations and so on. They are particularly useful in smaller single issue organizations where the costs to coordination are lower.
Allows for the building of expertise around advocacy skills.
- To the extent the organization works on multiple issues, functionally organized staff members can work on many of them, seeing connections and coordinating across them. For instance, connecting economic policy with social safety net and poverty research.
- Generalist staff members can experience upward mobility allowing them to build on their skills.
- It’s easier to prioritize communications and agendas to external actors with a single government relations or communications team.
- Can be difficult to coordinate across different functions. Ask a communications staffer how many reports they have been expected to pitch to media with no relevance to the current news cycle. (Hint: it’s more than a few). Surrounded by people who think like them, forming integrated advocacy campaigns becomes difficult.
- For issue focused policy staff or government relations staff, working across different areas can be less desirable. Each issue area has its own network external to the organization, among which people have developed relationships and stature. Often, those who stick around a policy issue the longest, transiting from government to advocacy organizations and back, develop valuable institutional knowledge. Leaving this behind to work across multiple issues carries potential career risk.
Divisions, Issues, or Campaigns
Organizing around issues is particularly common among large multi-issue think tanks where various departments serve as wells of expertise on their issue area. Sometimes communications or government relations teams will maintain functional departments, while at other times, they will embed with a particular issue team.
- Organizing around issues makes it easier to coordinate across different functions. If you’ve got your policy and communication folks embedded on the same team, you are more likely to release a report that is relevant to both the media environment and policymakers.
- This is also a natural structure to build and deepen a team’s expertise in a particular issue. If you want to be the “go-to” organization on climate and transportation policy, dedicating an entire group of people to spend all their time on that one area is a much more effective than pulling together a larger number of people, all working on multiple issues.
- Staff members who specialize in a particular issue set see a career path upward that fits with their plans to build and maintain their expertise on a particular issue and its corresponding network.
- Putting a strong focus on single issues can create a classic “siloing” situation. The criminal justice team and the poverty team do not naturally interact on a daily basis, missing the interrelationships between the two and their work for racial and economic justice.
- Have multiple groups dedicated to their own issues can create challenges in prioritization externally. Say you are at a large multi-issue think tank and multiple teams want the organization to use its external communications and government relations capacity on their issue. How do you decide?
- If you are an embedded communications staff in a particular issue campaign, you may not see as much upward mobility as you would in a functional organization with its own communications department. An issue focused team will place a premium on expertise in that area and may tend to favor policy and research staffers for promotion over others.
The Matrixed Organization
Some organizations try to get the best of both worlds through creating a matrixed organization, that balances issue expertise and coordination through a set of formal or informal reporting relationships. One straightforward version of this is having a functional organization with policy, communications, and organizing teams, and a campaign manager who sits in between these teams and coordinates across functions on a particular issue. However the complexity of the structure can cause problems of its own.
- A “best of both worlds” approach that tries to achieve both issue expertise and coordination across functions. When it works, the matrix allows for integrated advocacy campaigns with coordination across multiple teams.
- Matrixes create problems of their own. The complexity and need to coordinate with multiple people can slow down the organization’s ability to act or respond to external events in a timely fashion.
- At its worst, the matrix may miss getting the pros of issue and functional organizations, resulting in the worst of both worlds where poor communication and integration result in greater siloing, mixed messages to external actors, and an overall drop in effectiveness.