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Beyond the Organogram – a fresh look at comms team structure and culture

1 December 2020

The world has moved on since CharityComms last looked at comms team structures in 2015, and original plans to update the research were affected by the pandemic. But knowing how relevant this is for many of you right now we have worked with our partners at RandallFox to take soundings from members with recent experience of restructuring to share.

In a series of blogs we’ll be drawing on this research and looking at some of the essential elements to building a healthy comms team culture and structure. Here we kick off with a look at one of the biggest challenges a comms leader is likely to face – how to manage a team restructure.

Our thanks go to the comms leaders and advisers that have contributed to this work (listed below). We are grateful for their generosity and openness in sharing their experience.

Thinking about a restructure? This is what you need to think about

As a comms leader, a team restructure is a time when you will need support. The lucky ones among us will have that in-house. For those who are not so lucky, there is support and guidance available here, within the CharityComms community.

We spoke to CharityComms members with recent learning to share to create this headline guide to preparing for, and living through, a comms and marketing team restructure as an introduction to the ‘Beyond the Organogram’ blog series.

We hope it helps support and guide your thinking

1. Is restructuring your only option?

In the current climate you may not have the luxury of exploring this question. But structural change can be disruptive at best and derailing at worst. So, where possible, it’s worth exploring your options before committing.

For example, we have seen organisations transform their audience focus, integrate comms and campaigning, and create a stronger strategic role for comms, all without changing team structure.

There are times, though, where a restructure may be the best course of action. For example: having to make significant savings; a big change of organisational direction or ambition; or a comms structure that has evolved organically so that the resource you have no longer fits organisational need.

2. Carve out (proper) time

To shape and influence the outcome of a restructure, you will need time. Allow yourself some headspace and the ability to get on the front foot. If the timeframe is short, drop other things. You won’t regret this in the long term.

3. Have, and communicate, a clear process and purpose

Daniel Fluskey at The Institute of Fundraising sums this up as: “transparency of process and honesty of purpose.” Your team will need to be clear on not only the practical elements of any restructure – timing, process, when and how they can contribute, etc – but also why it is happening and what the goal is.

Articulate, consistently and repeatedly, the driver for the change, the problem the restructure is setting out to solve and, if it’s not just about cost savings, how you will make more impact at the end of it. If you can, root this in insight and in the context of making things better for your beneficiaries.

The overarching advice from our interviewees is “over communicate”. Be prepared to communicate constantly in different formats – Q&As, town hall meetings, workshops, 1:1s – use them all to check in with your team and respond to the inevitable questions and concerns.

4. Start with organisational goals

“Start with what the team has to deliver for the organisation and only then look at what you need in terms of roles and structure.” Annabel Davis, Mind

In an ideal world, we would all have clear organisational goals at the outset of any restructure. In reality, if you do not have clarity around goals, you will need to advocate for it. No comms leader can optimise their structure and resource without knowing what their function is expected to deliver against.

You may want to bring colleagues together to create a vision of what great comms and engagement looks like for your organisation. This can provide a cross-organisational consensus and a road map for any future structure.

The Children’s Society has created an engagement manifesto which asks all its staff to commit to communicating in a way that is relevant, authentic and honest.

5. Think long term – two years minimum

“Be certain that what you are doing really matches the long-term ambitions and strategy for the organisation.” Caroline Bernard, Homeless Link

Try to avoid being pressured into creating short-term structural solutions. Whatever you create should match your charity’s long-term goals and, ideally, allow you to design for the future. Any structure needs to remain relevant for a “minimum of two years,” advises one interviewee, to avoid a cycle of constant uncertainty and disruption.

6. Find external perspective and inspiration

If there is one, core piece of advice we have heard from comms leaders it is this – look outside, see how others are doing it, get an external sense check.

You can do this even with limited resource. Matt Horwood at akt worked with his CharityComms mentor on their recent restructure; others brought in external resource to help structure the process or make the case for new approaches. Some used their existing networks:

“Look outwards for support from external peer networks,” says Laura Mason at London Wildlife Trust. “You quickly find that lots of people are facing similar challenges.”

7. Harness internal ideas and solutions

“My biggest source of support and inspiration were my heads of department … we worked together to identify the benefits and finesse the plans.” Ali Day, Prostate Cancer UK

The more you can harness the insight and ideas of your team, the better. Whether you have a week or a year, you can use that time well with one important caveat: the process must be sincere. Central to this is being honest and clear about what people can, and can’t, influence.

You will also need to gather the views, perceived needs and ambitions of your internal stakeholders. You may not be able to meet all of these in a new structure, but open conversations should build trust – both for now and in the future – and could throw up new cross-organisational approaches. Obviously, gaining internal backing, particularly at board level, for any new structure is vital. Our experience shows this is best done iteratively rather than waiting to present a ‘perfect’ solution at the end of a process.

8. Be objective about your strengths and weaknesses

This is a Big Ask. You will be required to be clear-eyed about weaknesses and gaps as well as strengths at a time when you and the team may be feeling vulnerable. Yet the credibility of any business case you build will rely on your objectivity and honesty. Joe Jenkins at The Children’s Society recommends that, alongside spotting where improvements can be made, you also identify the solutions that could transform practice: “We focused on ‘what can we make better and what could great look like?’,” says Joe.

Don’t forget to capture and evidence what you and your team are really good at. Not only does this help with morale, it should also ensure that those strengths aren’t taken for granted and are protected for the future.

9. Explore, and cost, your options

“The key thing is to articulate the drivers for change and the value to the organisation that any change will bring. It has to be clear how you are going to help the organisation achieve its objectives.” Claudine Snape, The National Deaf Children’s Society

It is a good discipline, and may help in your negotiations, to explore more than one structural option. Alongside any options, at RandallFox we always present costs; anticipated benefits; potential risks and likely impact on organisational goals. If resource is being reduced this may include setting out what will no longer be delivered to the same level, or in the same way, as before. Keep the language neutral, ensure your data and evidence is robust, and lay things out so that the implications of any choice are clear and make sure there is an evaluation process that demonstrates accountability.

Remember that stories can be as powerful as data for making a business case. Dan Metcalfe at the Wellcome Trust recalls how a Washington Post piece on the consequences of poor UX at The World Bank really spoke to his internal stakeholders: “Alongside our own analysis of the data and UX expertise it really helped us to make the case internally for a stronger audience focus,” says Dan. In the midst of the strategizing and costing don’t forget that you are communicating a vision – and you have the skills and experience to do that well.

10. Make time to come together as a new team

When setting out your plan for any restructure include, and devote resource to, how to bring your new team together at the end. You may need to create or embed clarity and consensus around new priorities and areas of responsibility. You may also need time to create a new team dynamic and tone. Don’t expect this all to come together immediately. The good news is that it’s possible to do this remotely, even during a pandemic, as we will explore in the rest of this blog series.

Keep an eye out for our blogs on how members are strengthening team culture (often remotely) during the pandemic; how changes to structure/culture can deliver better audience focus; emerging roles and skills in the sector and how to embed the principles of agile working.

This is #1 in our Beyond the organogram series which looks at comms team culture and structure. Check out instalments #2, #3, #4 and #5 here.

Photo: Boba Jaglicic on Unsplash

Selina Fox

director, RandallFox

Selina Fox is a director and co-founder of RandallFox. RandallFox specialises in strategic comms support for charities with the goal of helping teams develop greater clarity, focus and direction so that they can make more of an impact. Services provided by RandallFox include supporting team development and structure; strategic planning; audience focus, research and message development; facilitation and coaching. 

Contributors

Thank you to the following for sharing their experience and expertise and helping to shape the ‘Beyond the Organogram’ blog series: Caroline Bernard, Head of Policy and Communications, Homeless Link; Annabel Davis, Head of Communications and Marketing, Mind; Ali Day, Director of Communications, Prostate Cancer UK; Lucy Devine, former Director of Communications for a national equality charity; Daniel Fluskey, Head of Policy and Research, Chartered Institute of Fundraising; Joe Jenkins, Director of Supporter Impact and Income, The Children’s Society; Felicity Lowes, Head of Health and Social Care, Ellwood Atfield; Matt Horwood, Director of Communications and Campaigns, akt; Laura Mason, Head of Marketing and Communications, The London Wildlife Trust; Dan Metcalfe, Head of Brand and Communication Campaigns, Wellcome Trust; Kate Nightingale, Head of Marketing and Communications, Crisis; Annabel Prideaux, Practice Lead (third sector), Taylor Bennett; Claudine Snape, Deputy Director: Communications; The National Deaf Children’s Society; Kristopher Gravning, Manager, Aleron; plus contributors who wished to remain anonymous.