Stop wasting institutional knowledge (and your team’s time)

The Nonprofit Revolution
5 min readFeb 26, 2018


Every single person working on your project should be able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing the way they’re doing it.

This article was written by featured writer Janice Chan

How was I supposed to know to ask about what I don’t know?!?

In my day job as a technical trainer who primarily works with new staff, I ask myself whether someone would know to ask. The explicit part of my job is to teach them how to use our constituent relationship management system (or CRM) and related business processes, but I also need to be aware of what they already know. If everybody has some development experience, I can gloss over common fundraising terms and focus on things unique to this organization. Even the best professional fundraisers for nonprofits still need to learn the internal vernacular, culture around such processes, etc.

No tool operates independent of the people who use it, how they interact with it, and how people work together on a team. It’s the stuff we take for granted when we’ve been part of an organization for a while, and that new hires may not be aware enough to ask unless they’ve been bitten by it in the past.

Likewise, freelancers don’t work completely independent of their client’s organizational context.

Ross confronting a coworker.

Okay, maybe they can remain removed from the office fridge drama.

We usually think of onboarding for new hires, maybe interns and volunteers. We recognize that new team members will need to know what systems are to be used in their work (and possibly how to use them), any compliance policies, how your team communicates with each other, and so on.

Which begs the question of who you consider to be a part of your organization.

The answer should be anyone who is or could be doing work on behalf of your organization. If you use peer-to-peer fundraising, you’re equipping your donors with sample e-mails or social media posts, right? If you do, it’s because you see how your organization can benefit by making it easy for people to do so and in having a consistent and cohesive message. Same goes for freelancers.

The other thing about onboarding though, is that it happens at the beginning. It happens once. And we usually rush through it.

I get it. New hires are raring to go. Their teams and managers are excited to have a new contributor. We’ve got more important things to worry about!

And yet, we’ve probably all experienced what happens when a new team member is tossed in the deep end without so much as a ladder in the pool.

The point is that we often spend a lot of onboarding time covering things that people will know ask about (like what the health insurance options are) and not enough time on things that people won’t know to ask. Like why you can’t share photos of foster children in your program on social media.

Even at mission driven organizations, where you might expect that the why gets woven into everything one does, this gets missed often. There is a higher-level purpose, yes, but this doesn’t explain your marketing strategy. Every single person working on your marketing, from marketing director to coordinator to freelance copywriter, should be able to explain why they’re doing what they’re doing the way they’re doing it.

It can also mean things like…

  • Will someone joining mid-project understand where to find files? (I’d hope you don’t have a FINAL and a FINAL 02182018 version, but hey, things happen when we’re a one-person team.)
  • If your team uses an editorial calendar, does the freelance social media pro have access?
  • If the work your organization does is highly technical or behind the scenes, what will a new member need to understand about your programs to do their work effectively?
  • What conversations will the freelancer miss? Would a longer term freelancer be able to spend an occasional day working from your office (hat tip, Doctors Without Borders)?
  • Have you changed your logo or website URL? Have a ghost social media account that you lost because one former employee was the sole administrator?
  • How does decision-making work at your organization? Can you, as the point person for this freelancer, sign off, or will you need to get approvals from others?
  • Speaking of decision-makers, what types of updates and communication are they expecting? Weekly? At certain milestones?
  • Regarding past decisions that influence what we’re doing and how, when were those decisions made? What was the context? Are they worth revisiting?

Clearly, needs vary depending the work the freelancer will be doing. But you can see how these are examples of knowledge that allow all team members to do their jobs more quickly, effectively, and with less frustration.

When someone is new, what often frustrates us is losing our shortcuts. We miss the former colleague knowing exactly what we needed when we said a report was for the board chair or their familiarity with the quirks of the website’s CMS (content management system). We keep stumbling because our new colleagues keep asking questions, or didn’t ask and we forgot to warn them. It happens.

But much of this frustration is preventable through knowledge management and acknowledging that there will always be new people.

If our files on the shared drive are consistently named and organized, it will be that much easier for a new staff member to find them. If we are intentional in our communication and make it inclusive of everyone working with us, it will make collaboration and coordination a lot smoother for freelancers, remote staff, and our traveling colleagues. If we record major changes, like a rebranding or a move to a new accounting system, with some brief notes about why and a list of caveats or differences, that won’t be lost when key people leave. If we document our essential business processes, we can hire new people and know that they won’t be lost trying to reinvent the wheel.

There will always be someone who wasn’t in the room and whose work will be impacted. Who are they and how can we help them access this knowledge?

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The Nonprofit Revolution

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