Analysis: Is it a good idea to merge fundraising and comms?

Some charities have found that combining the two departments has improved their effectiveness. Susannah Birkwood asks experts about the pros and cons

Some communications and fundraising departments work harmoniously, but there can be tensions
Some communications and fundraising departments work harmoniously, but there can be tensions

Disputes between fundraising and communications staff were a regular occurrence at the RSPB until a couple of years ago. In 2012, the bird conservation charity took the decision to merge its fundraising and communications functions into one department, and appointed Beth Thoren to head the newly amalgamated team.

"Before I joined, there was quite a bit of disagreement between the comms and the marketing and fundraising directorates," she says. "They spent a lot of time being inwardly focused and arguing with each other."

Two years on, the arguing has stopped. Now all members of the merged team have aligned objectives, which has greatly improved the charity's engagement with its supporters, Thoren says.

The Terrence Higgins Trust, the HIV charity, also merged its comms, health improvement and fundraising teams into one new department in 2011, and the conservation charity WWF UK combined its comms and fundraising streams last year.

Other organisations that have this structure or a similar one - because the way in which marketing and policy relate to these departments varies greatly - include the National Deaf Children's Society, VSO, Friends of the Earth and Action for Children.

An increasing number of charities appear to think that they too should seek better alignment of their fundraising and comms teams, either through an organisational restructure or greater collaboration, such as working on integrated campaigns.

One of the reasons these moves are seen as worthwhile is that there is often little collaboration between staff in these areas: a survey conducted in 2011 by CharityComms and Forster Communications found that only 14 per cent of respondents felt the two departments always worked to shared goals. Another factor might be the scant use of communications to strengthen charity fundraising work: only 8 per cent of charities said that comms campaigns were always used to generate fundraising leads, and almost a fifth said they never used comms in this way.

"Some communications and fundraising departments work harmoniously, but more often than not you find tensions between the two, which can work against effective marketing," says Dan Dufour, head of brand engagement at the Good Agency. "One reason that departments are merging is that they want to break down the silo mentality and make sure everyone is working for the same audiences, the same objectives and towards the same key performance indicators."

Many charities are moving in this direction, but some - such as Diabetes UK and the British Heart Foundation - prefer to retain separate divisions with clear lines of responsibility. The British Red Cross also maintains separate fundraising and comms teams, with policy and advocacy coming under both the operations and communications umbrellas, and marketing sitting within several areas, including fundraising, comms and some services, such as first aid. WaterAid has separate fundraising and comms teams, but these sit within the same directorate, with marketing coming under fundraising and policy taken care of by the policy and campaigns directorate.

Some charities even say that merging these departments could run counter to their aims. Jo Birch-Phaure, communications manager at the youth development charity UK Youth, says that for charities that are engaged in the direct delivery of services, mergers are not the ideal scenario.

"For organisations that have to speak to large audiences of beneficiaries, it's more difficult," she says. "When communications sits in the fundraising function, there's a risk that the fundraising imperative overrides the requirement to be sensitive to the beneficiaries' needs. You need to be quite clear that you're not asking your beneficiaries for money."

But Peter Gilheany, director of Forster, disagrees with this view, and thinks it is "old-fashioned protectionism" for comms departments to view public audiences as separate and distinct from beneficiaries.

"In a more open, social-media world, the idea that your communications are going to be discrete and reach only a very specific audience simply doesn't work," he says. "Lots of beneficiaries are also donors and volunteers. An organisation that tries to present different messages to different audiences is going to confuse or, at worst, antagonise those audiences."

Gilheany acknowledges that full integration of departments is not right for every charity, and says his agency has worked with several organisations that instead use working groups that bring together marketing, comms, policy and research departments on specific integrated campaigns, in the way that Age UK did on its Spread the Warmth project. The RNIB, meanwhile, launched its first integrated campaign in April, called I Am Here, which its fundraising and marketing teams delivered in collaboration. Dufour says it is a prime example of a campaign delivered to create brand awareness as well as to attract new donors.

Matthew Sherrington, a freelance fundraising and communications consultant, believes that departmental mergers might be a better option for smaller charities than their larger counterparts. "In a small organisation, it makes sense to have those functions together, because it helps teams to understand how comms and fundraising work - and, because the brand has a lower profile, the comms team has less work to do," he says.

For charities going down the merger path, experts say it is important for the restructuring to be carried out in a transparent way and to maintain sufficient expertise in the team, rather than expecting staff to turn their hands to a new skillset overnight. This means that the person appointed to head the department should have the skills to lead both areas. It's also important to establish agreed objectives for the new team and agreed targets for success. Indeed, according to Thoren, those charities that already have perfectly aligned objectives across the two departments would not need to combine them - but often the synergy is not there unless a merger does actually take place.

Ultimately, it comes down to each charity to decide what is the ideal set-up, be it a structural merger, working groups for specific campaigns or simply more interdepartmental meetings.

"I don't think there's a right or a wrong," Sherrington says. "Mindset and culture come before structure. So if you understand what you're trying to do in terms of having a fully aligned comms and fundraising strategy, then it becomes a division of labour.

"Having an understanding of what the organisation wants to achieve with all of its communications is key."

Case study: The RSPB

Having been seen as an exclusive bird club for too long, the RSPB wanted to broaden its appeal. This meant investing in its brand and, after bringing in consultants to advise on how to go about it, the charity felt that it should be coordinated by a fundraising and communications department that was working as one. "There had been agreement about six months to a year before I arrived that this would happen," says Beth Thoren, who joined the RSPB in November 2012 in the newly created role of director of fundraising and communications.

The charity began preparing for the move before Thoren arrived. It set up a working group, in which representatives from each department came together to look at how they could become one team, and held a meeting at which employees could find out what their counterparts in the other department did. They also carried out joint team-building sessions. "There was a cultural clash that had to be worked through, and years of misunderstandings," Thoren says. "The activities were designed to break down some of those cultural issues."

When Thoren arrived, she focused on keeping the two departments running and developing the brand. Then the restructure took place, which meant that the number of employees was reduced by 10 per cent and most roles in fundraising and comms departments were changed. Staff were offered internal and external training to get to grips with their new responsibilities. The restructure took nine months and concluded on 2 June this year.

The RSPB is now a strong advocate of integrated campaigns, which Thoren says work much harder for the brand by giving out a consistent message. Thoren says that 30 per cent of the charity's PR now talks about the brand or features a fundraising ask, compared with almost none previously.

But she acknowledges that it is not always appropriate to add fundraising asks to a comms message and vice versa. "Merging your departments does not necessarily mean that every piece of communication is a mix," she says. "Each communication has its own role; if you're going to change people's hearts and minds, you need to present the threat and the problem, and you also need to be able to give some hope."

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