National Resource Teams: Top 5 Reasons the Field Hates Them and What to Do About It
In any national or international nonprofit, there is a team of people at the top level that has an organization-wide interest in how the business of the organization’s mission gets done.
That team may be called many things. The names I can print include “national resource team” and “national business unit.”
Historically, field staff — the people who carry out the organization’s mission locally — hold their respective national resource teams in varying degrees of disregard. The field staff are the point of contact between the organization and the people the mission serves. Understanding the sources of conflict between the field and national resource teams can help diminish the friction.
First, let’s understand the relationships that often exist in a social good organization.
Nonprofit Organization Structures, Sizes and Scopes
A federated organization is a group of 501(c)(3)s distributed nationally or internationally, typically organized into chapters or affiliates. National and chapters are connected by their legal agreements. Sometimes the legal agreement defines their connection as loose, as in “we use the same brand.” Sometimes other functions are shared and delivered from national resource teams to field units, like marketing, advocacy or fundraising. Money is shared in various ways; how it is shared is a regular source of disagreement. In a federated organization, this creates a terrain overripe for conflict.
A single corporation with chapters has less potential for conflict because the lines of authority are more clear. However, people operating inside a "single corp” have the same sources of conflict as those in federated organizations. But, in single corporations, the job description generally precludes “pushing back on national.” In addition, single corporation agreements do not allow one to take one’s ball and go home, as can happen in a federated organization.
And some organizations have a national office and no chapters, but maintain a “presence in major markets.”
The most challenging scenario is the hybrid organization, where some chapters are part of the single corporation, plus some chapters that experience varying amounts of influence from national. So, hybrid organizations have different rules for different field entities. Confusion and conflict ensue.
National resource teams also vary in size. They can be big, as in a unified, single corporation like American Heart Association. Or the team can be small compared to the national brand footprint, like Special Olympics, a federated organization with many 501(c)(3)s.
National’s size is relative to its level of influence and the services it provides. Typically, its level of influence is determined by the legal relationships between parts of the organization. Sometimes national resource teams lead via authority (mandates), while sometimes, they lead through influence, as per their legal agreements and culture dictates. Sometimes authority and influence are both used to execute the various functions of the organization.
The services that national resource teams offer vary widely, and sometimes are segmented into groups or teams within the national resource team. For example, there may be a national walk team, a national gala team, a national major giving team, etc. While they are part of the national business unit, these teams have their own performance metrics, which can cause conflict.
Regardless of its name, the scope of work, and whether it leads through authority or influence, national resource teams are charged with providing the process and infrastructure to allow the field teams to do their job more effectively and efficiently. The team seeks scale, consistency and reach for the mission.
So why then, are most national resource teams held in contempt? Why are people at the local level not thrilled by the help they can provide? Here are stories that demonstrate, from both sides of the fence, how national can help (or hurt) field staff to accept national’s role.
1. Loss of Autonomy
“National takes away my authority and creativity.”
Alice Rodd O’Rourke is chief revenue officer and senior vice president at Make-A-Wish America. She leads her team at the national level in a federated environment, so understands the obstacles in managing change for a national resource team.
“New ways of doing business can be very difficult,” O’Rourke said. “We have a hard time accepting new ideas.”
The main problem, O’Rourke believes, is that varying information and absorption cause dissension, so what’s an effective way to communicate?
“The CEO may get it and filter it to other chiefs, who then filter it down,” she said. “Communication channels are a problem. The national business unit can only send the info.
“Field CEOs and staff feel their autonomy is threatened,” she continued. “Lots of national people are didactic. That is not helpful. I have had to say, ‘It seems like you’re teaching field CEOs. It might help to position your information as reminding them instead of teaching. Sometimes national doesn’t have the best demeanor in our approach. We create the sense that we don’t recognize your expertise and include it in our planning.’”
However, there are ways to improve the relationships between the national resource team and chapters, O’Rourke said.
“We are doing a better job of involving chapter CEOs earlier in the creative process,” she said “We have to be inclusive earlier on. On the other hand, I see the field as a great source of innovation. At the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society my mantra was, ‘by you, with you, for you’ in developing stewardship programs.”
2. Lack of Transparency or Role Clarity
“I don’t know what is happening; I thought this was my job.”
Vicky Green, senior director of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer and national initiatives at the American Cancer Society, holds an upbeat view of the national and field relationship. However, she acknowledges potential issues include inadequate explanations, late implementations, and ignored staff and volunteer perspectives. To counter those, Green has found ways to roll out initiatives successfully.
“Have the rollout done by local staff instead of national,” she said “So, for example, on a national call, we had a national volunteer partner delivering the slides, then three local staff spoke to the why. And it helps to have someone like them we can reach out to and ask questions.”
Exerting her authority is something Green studiously avoids. One example of having to exert authority instead of using influence was when the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event transitioned from a staff-led to a volunteer-led initiative.
“Resistance came from not knowing how to do it another way,” Green said. “Staff didn’t know how to let go of ownership of some things and trust someone else — the volunteer. They did not know the volunteer world. So, in that case, I had to exert authority.
“Being directive can work in the short term, but not [in] the long term,” she continued. “It’s not sustainable.”
Like O’Rourke, Green sees the field as a source of innovation and improvement.
“We can’t be successful as an island. I can’t build alone in my little office. There is a constant feedback loop. We will make mistakes. Then we find out what happened. We applaud the person who brought up the problem. I rely on both staff and field. Field knows their people the best. I won’t do something they don’t think will work where they are.”
3. Lack of Empathy
“You don’t understand my situation.”
Diana Gray, CEO of the Hydrocephalus Association and an industry veteran, was once an executive director at the chapter level.
“As chapter [executive director], the [national] walk team, gala team, major gifts team, etc., made us crazy because they thought their [team’s] thing was the most important thing,” she said. “We in the field did it all. We were juggling all sorts of different priorities. The problem was a lack of empathy, an understanding of what it’s like to run a chapter. They understood fundraising, but didn’t understand the breadth of responsibility. They were not incentivized for holistic success; it was about their lane’s success.”
Having served as a chapter and a national leader, she is equipped to relate to both teams.
“Now that I’m in a national role, those experiences help me push my team to lift up the local people and show them love, to help them understand that we understand,” Gray continued. “Those experiences helped me be more staff-centric and volunteer-centric.”
4. Lack of Connection
“Why can’t I be part of the planning? I am front line, after all.”
Kevin Sims is vice president of volunteer field relations and engagement at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN), a single corporation with affiliates. One staff person may cover two to four volunteer-populated affiliates. As a member of the national resource team, Sims shared that a lot is determined at the national level, a meaningful but difficult decision regarding the PanCAN PurpleStride event.
“We took away [field staff and volunteers’] ability to determine dates of walks that worked best for their community,” he said “Instead, we looked at what would look best for our mission overall.”
And that change could provide a cohesive campaign that could include a national kickoff, local fundraising match day and national registration day.
"Our rollout [of the movement to one event day], while difficult, was done with a good plan,” he said. “I would not change it except to perhaps build in more volunteer spokespeople.”
Volunteers and affiliates felt disconnected from the event, claiming they knew what was best for their communities. However, national did not disagree with that.
“By moving to one date we said, ‘You’re right! And that’s why we’ll give you a stage, porta-potties, signs and banners, all the stuff that will look the same no matter what,’” Sims said. “‘You own the flavor of your event — the look, the band, the scripting, the speakers. You add your flavor. Let us take care of the stuff that will be the same. You take care of the people; we’ll take care of the porta-potties.’"
But, have negatives been overcome by the simplicity of scale positives?
“That’s something we are continuing to evaluate,” Sims said. “We have seen some volunteers and staff walk away. Part of our decision involved getting our staff away from being event managers and handling logistics. We wanted them to steward relationships, to retain and recruit volunteers. That has worked. Staff now does spend less time on logistics. But also, we’ve lost a team or two. In terms of the data, we’re not far enough out to know if it will be better [for revenue].”
5. Lack of Recognition
“No one knows I do a great job. Only national gets the credit.”
One technique that Green, of the American Cancer Society, uses is fostering community.
“We have a national chat on Teams,” she said. “I highlight people, recognize people, ask them for ideas and then ask to share them. They help each other in the chat. Often one part of the community helps another before I can answer the question. We foster a one-team environment.”
Green provided three tips to consider when managing a national resource team:
- “Be aware of the history; there was a why before you. Don’t make sweeping changes fast. Look at the highest ROI things for quick wins through easy tweaks.
- “Go on a listening tour of field staff — hear from them about what worked and didn’t, and the pain points.
- “Don’t make decisions in a closet. Have the right stakeholders and vet things with those who have to carry them out. I like to pilot stuff. I know who my quick adopters are, and I pilot things with them.”
Effective coordination between national resource teams and field staff requires thoughtful management. In summary, here’s how you can help the field lean in and quit hating national:
- Include the field’s perspective in crafting initiatives and planning their execution.
- Acknowledge their contributions regularly. Celebrate their work.
- Visualize the national plan so they can see where they fit in, what other people do and what the overarching goals mean to the mission.
The preceding blog was provided by an individual unaffiliated with NonProfit PRO. The views expressed within do not directly reflect the thoughts or opinions of NonProfit PRO.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.