Stuck in silos? A CEO's guide to breaking them down



Michele Hall-Duncan

CEO, enCourage Kids Foundation


Michele Hall-Duncan, CEO of enCourage Kids Foundation recently spoke at a meeting of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ New York City Chapter. She shared that she believes it’s her role as CEO to break down silos in her team. It’s so easy for departments to get isolated, she pointed out. The audience groaned.

Behind that collective groan is the reality that silos challenge many organizations. A breakdown of communication and cross-pollination of ideas is more than a damper on collaboration: it’s a barrier to growth. When teams stay in the comfort zones of their own disciplines, they lose opportunities to stretch and evolve. The result is a loss of innovation for the mission.

“The thing about silos is, you can be so comfortable,” says Michele. “It’s an aspect of change to allow others to interact with you. That interaction might change the way you think.”

Nowhere is the cost of silos higher than in relationship-based fundraising, which thrives on a culture of philanthropy permeating the entire organization. To donors, there’s no difference between the major gifts team, program staff, the finance department…they all represent the organization itself. It’s not enough for a donor to trust one person on a team; to invest fully and continually, donors must trust the team as a whole. When donors sense a disconnect between staff, they wonder: “If you don’t trust each other, why should I trust you?”

Have silos been dragging you down?

Never fear. There is a path out. Here are Michele’s recommendations.

1. Embrace your role—in both the problem and the solution.

Michele’s approach starts with recognizing her own pivotal role leader of her organization.

It’s up to an organization’s leaders to set a tone and foster trust across the team by:

  • Keeping the organization’s overall goal front and center

  • Encouraging collaboration over competition

  • Facilitating open communication

  • Creating space for mistakes and learning

Michele believes the place to start is her own interactions with the team. She maintains an open-door policy—and accepts that policy may waylay her own plans at times. She walks the hallways as often as she can to create opportunities for interaction with all members of the team. Sometimes, hallway conversations morph into impromptu meetings. Michele says: “I allow the chemistry to happen.” If a great idea comes up, we follow it. These interactions raise the energy in the office and spread the ethos of collaboration and creativity.

At the heart of silos is ego, according to Michele. So, breaking down silos starts with the suspension of ego. That means trusting that colleagues are experts. It means letting someone tackle a task that you know how to do…and discovering a new way of doing things.

And it starts at the top. When the boss embraces the talents of others, the whole team learns that “working harder doesn’t make you a hero; working smarter does.” And, Michele adds, “you actually get to go home sometimes!”

Bottom line: As a leader, you are the one who “knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way,” as John Maxwell said. So, formulate your vision for your team’s culture, demonstrate it, and lead others to join you.

2. Say it out loud: “We have a silo problem”

The path to open communication starts with open communication. When you recognize a silo problem, start by gathering your team and talking about it.

Michele recommends starting with a group discussion in which you, as a leader, share your concerns and your commitment to addressing the problem—as a team. Model the transparency you hope to sustain as the cornerstone of your new culture. 

From there, listen. Ask: “Why do you think we have a silo problem?”

Give team members an opportunity to speak their mind openly. Resist the urge to defend or problem-solve on the spot.

3. Engage the team in the solution.

From there, gather every team member’s input on the path forward. Create space for ideas to bubble up—even out-of-the-box ones that people might have been afraid to share in the past.

Michele recommends avoiding large groups—because you won’t hear from everyone—and 1:1s—because you’ll get pulled into the middle of interpersonal issues. Rather, meet with everyone in small groups. An intimate conversation with 2-3 colleagues allows everyone the opportunity to speak and brings out everyone’s solution-oriented side.

4. When in doubt, go with transparency.

Ego-driven competition and possessiveness is the antithesis of growth. Yes, we all need to own our goals. Yes, we all need to be driven to exceed them. But, says Michele, “it’s important to keep the whole goal in mind.” 

Share your goals with the team. Have team members share their goals with each other. Talk about challenges. Talk about opportunities. Cultivate a sense of collective ownership over everyone’s goals, so that the team’s foundation is a belief that: “No one wins if we don’t all win.”

5. Give every expert a moment to shine.

Often, silos are created by a lack of understanding of what other team members do. That not only makes it harder to seek out assistance and collaboration, it also makes team members feel undervalued. Lack of trust signals: “You’re not qualified.” So, voices get silenced and opportunities get lost.

Michele recommends starting with something simple, like a regular lunch-and-learn with rotating speakers. Give everyone an opportunity to present about a topic important to them—a project they’re working on, a problem they’re trying to solve, an idea they have.

For example, Michele asked her finance lead to present about the organization’s 990. He shared how it’s compiled, how it’s used by donors, and the work he’s doing to make sure the organization always puts its best foot forward. “When people were empowered with information,” says Michele, “They respected him and where finance fits into the organization.”

This kind of showcasing of expertise is particularly important on the program side. “Programming is your product,” says Michele. You can’t sell without a great product. She requires all non-program staff to participate in programs at least 1-2 times per year. (Now, they love it so much, they do more!)

Everyone on the team has an expertise, and Michele is adamant that everyone feels like an expert—willing to speak in meetings and willing to share new ideas. “We can be our very own thinktank,” she says.

6. Make fundraising everyone’s job.

Fundraising is the lifeline of a nonprofit, and it’s a bigger job that any one fundraising team can take on.  

The cost of silos to fundraising is profound. Michele views the most detrimental effects as:

  • Lost opportunities. When people are focused only on their own objectives, they stop listening to the donor and allowing the donors interests to drive their experience with an organization. Opportunities blossom when donors are truly seen, truly valued, and truly exposed to all aspects of an organization that interest them. Without cross-functional collaboration, you can’t fully engage a donor. Michele’s view: “I don't ever want ANYONE to feel like they don't have an opportunity to fundraise." 

  • Imbalanced strategy. Fundraising will be driven by competition for ownership, rather than responsiveness to trends in donor interests. For example, if a certain program is overlooked or undervalued, fundraisers won’t hear about stories and impact from the frontlines—meaning donors won’t have the opportunity to hear them.

“Everyone should be fundraising in an organization. You need to train everyone on your team,” Michele advises. She continually builds her team’s skills—and, perhaps more importantly, confidence—through two methods:

  • Specific educational opportunities, such as how to talk to a donor on the phone.

  • Regular meetings and all-staff conversations about fundraising in which she and the fundraisers share the specifics of donor stories, interactions, and strategies. She even shares details of conversations and jokes. “I want the donor to come alive as a real person,” she says. “That way, when donors call, they feel like everyone in the organization knows them—that they’re important.”

At the end of the day, breaking down silos will make work more fun and more productive for team members. “When there’s synergy, it’s magic,” says Michele. Open trust and communication also allows the entire organization to get engaged in fundraising—generating more funding to grow the mission.

That, after all, is the real bottom line.

Michele Hall-Duncan is the President & CEO of enCourage Kids Foundation, a leading US non-profit focused on humanizing healthcare for children and their families by resourcing impact-driven pediatric programs and supporting the Child Life Community. She is a Trustee of Children’s Specialized Hospital Foundation where she serves as board Secretary and chair of the governance committee; serves on the Advisory Board of one of the nation’s leading anti-bullying organizations, STOMP Out BullyingTM; and is a board member of the New York City chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where she also serves on the Professional Advancement Committee.

Aperio Philanthropy LLC is a full-service fundraising consulting firm, specializing in relationship-based fundraising. Aperio exists to build the capacity of nonprofits to generate sustainable, growing mission funding. By distilling proven best practices into a clear investment roadmap, Aperio simplifies the path to growth. Aperio’s strategic counsel, turnkey resources, and project management services provide the support needed to move forward on that path—and turn bold visions into reality.