Why charities are only as strong as their weakest ties

Why charities are only as strong as their weakest ties

Why charities are only as strong as their weakest ties

During lockdown many of the myths surrounding flexible home working have been busted and the fundraising profession will only emerge stronger in the long term. Being able to offer more flexibility, as well as being more accommodating of individual circumstance means we can attract and retain a more diverse workforce than ever before...

However, before all charities rush to close offices and go ‘fully agile’, I want us to reflect on what is being lost from not being physically present with our wider colleagues, especially those outside of fundraising, and what we can do to stay embedded in our charity’s culture now, and in what will become our ‘new normal’ when lockdown restrictions are eased ever further.

Google were well known for deliberately designing their workplaces to maximise the opportunity for ‘casual collisions’ – those chance meetings between staff which spark unplanned conversations and increase opportunities for collaboration. Google believe these meetings increase innovation and creative work and result in a happier, more productive workforce.

In the early days of lockdown, I invested time and effort in re-creating casual collisions with my direct team – adding informal catch ups and more frequent team meetings; introducing the ‘question of the week’ where everyone could share something they were working on; making use of Teams Chat to encourage social contact and even having a Cress Head growing competition.

I haven’t found it as easy (nor do I feel I have been as proactive) to replicate these causal collisions with the wider Fundraising and Communications department or across all the teams within the charity, and I am feeling the loss of this. Because of this, I have found myself thinking about the concept of strong and weak ties, first developed in the 1970s by sociologist Mark Granovetter. Strong ties are the relationships we have with those we engage directly with and involve lots of frequent, detailed contact. This in time builds consensus although can also mean groups tend to think more alike as we share the same ideas. Thus, this can prohibit creativity and innovation to some extent.

Weak ties are the relationships we have with people in other groups, which involve less frequent contact and usually result in less direct or immediate outcomes. However, the power of weak ties is how they act as a bridge between groups, increasing the number of people in our overall network, introducing a diversity of thought and ideas, and supporting a sense of shared purpose and culture.

I am by no means advocating a mass return to the office to increase casual collisions as way to strengthen our weak ties; I personally am benefitting from less commuting time and more flexibility around how to shape my working day. Realistically the blended workspace, where different organisations share a physical workspace, used by continually changing groups of people, is some way off while we live within the realm of social distancing and important restrictions to control future COVID-19 spikes.

What I do think we can do is that we can, and should, invest as much energy into maintaining our internal weak ties as we have done with our strong ties.

I have just trialled a ‘Team Connections’ meeting where everyone in the fundraising and communications department joined a Zoom meeting that had some basic ground rules – everyone was asked to turn on their camera, everyone shared what they were working on in the chat and we did what was quickly dubbed the ‘People Raffle’ – three rounds of three-minute breakout rooms where people were randomly assigned into pairs to discuss a particular question. People commented on how good is was to see everyone’s face and get to talk to people they hadn’t for some time. This connections meeting will be repeated with the potential to include the whole organisation in the next ‘raffle’.

And it’s important to note that maintaining our weak ties doesn’t have to feel onerous and require too much time and effort to plan; some very simple ways to increase our communications include:

  • Asking everyone to turn on their video during meetings, even if this is only at the start and finish; and having a meeting house rule that people have their videos on when speaking

  • Rotating who gives any team updates so that everyone is seen on a regular basis

  • Inviting other teams to join informal discussions and share what they are working on

  • Encouraging staff to make short videos ‘60 seconds with...’ to share with colleagues

In uncertain and challenging times, it is understandable that people’s focus narrows and we prioritise our time to the most immediate and urgent work. Fundraising teams are under pressure to be innovative in thinking about new ways to raise money and service teams are dealing with an increase in demand for services. To survive, we need to keep a whole-charity approach and nurture a culture where everyone is engaged and in contact. Therefore, it is worth investing in how to support your weak ties.

So, take a moment to reflect on when you last proactively sought out a casual collision with a ‘weak tie’ and then take action to reach out and encourage others in your charity to do the same. And please do contact me so I can learn from your ideas!

Author: Karen Bolton, Head of Individual Giving, Dementia UK

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