Published: 27 March 2014

Building an internal communications function at ActionAid

When ActionAid developed its new organisational strategy in 2011, the charity took the opportunity to re-model and re-vitalise its internal communications. I provided training and worked on key strategic messages with them and recently caught up with Judith Davey, director of people, performance and accountability to hear about the difference it has made.

What does internal communication mean at ActionAid?

Internal communication is a vital tool for creating staff engagement with our mission to end poverty and injustice around the world. We communicate strategic messages and information about our performance and achievements to staff and trustees.

We use a variety of channels including a weekly email bulletin, face-to-face staff briefings, the intranet, learning circles (where staff share their experiences of our programme and country work) and coffee mornings with the director.

How is the internal communication function resourced?

We take a networked approach to resourcing, so we do not have a full-time internal communications team. Instead we have a core team made up of representatives from key teams, such as HR, planning, brand, IT and our office outside London. This group has developed an internal comms strategy and provides high level oversight to ensure content and channels are in line with it. Champions within each department promote internal comms priorities and provide content.

Overall responsibility sits with me as a director, but we recognise everyone has a responsibility for effective communication. The core team has developed a toolkit to help project managers communicate effectively.

How did you get your internal communications function up and running?

The senior leadership team reviewed different approaches to internal communication and decided the decentralised, networked option best fits our requirements and culture. Co-developing these strategic messages with a broad group of managers was a really valuable thing to do, as was building them into our induction programme. This helped to embed them into our organisational language and everyday conversations. We also started to communicate key decisions made by the senior leadership team in the weekly email.

What have you had to invest to get internal communications going?

The investment is largely in terms of leadership focus and people time. We have a tiny budget for external support as required and that budget is sufficient, as we have organised and resourced the function as ‘lean and mean’. It is also proving to be sustainable and effective.

If you add up all the time staff spend on internal comms it equates to about one full time member of staff.  This is a highly cost effective approach given the impact of the function compared to cost.

What difference has this more effective, strategic approach made?

The staff survey results released just over a year after we put the changes in place showed staff felt internal communication had improved substantially, with staff engagement up by over 20% since the staff survey two years earlier. We believe the work on internal comms played a role in this improvement. We’ve noticed new members of staff mention internal comms positively during their induction.

Even though the feedback was very positive, there are always things to improve. We developed an action plan based on the surveys and are currently re-energising people about our strategic messages, refreshing some of the approaches and improving the use of our intranet.

What advice do you have for others who want to improve their internal communications?

It’s really important to:

  • Focus on strategic communications as a priority rather than tactical or operational matters.
  • Closely align your learning and development programme with your drive for effective communication.
  • Secure expert advice at key moments.
  • Secure staff participation and involvement every step of the way.
  • Ensure you have clear benchmarks and KPIs against which you can gauge progress and build your improvement plans.
  • Invest in relevant training as required for a select number of internal communication champions across the organisation who can then roll out best practice to colleagues.
  • Encourage representation from each department on any internal communication project group to allow for quality insight and buy-in across the organisation.

Sarah Browning, freelance internal communications specialist, Browning York Ltd

Sarah has been working with not-for-profit organisations to improve their communications for 15 years. She helps them to identify and solve the organisational problems they are experiencing that can be addressed by an effective, planned approach to communication delivery. You can read more of her advice on improving communication at www.browningyork.com/blog