Investing in Capacity Building

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 27th, 2016 in Thoughts & Commentary

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The recent announcement by the Community Foundation Serving Richmond and Central Virginia that it was bringing back into its organizational fold the capacity building entity it created 10 years ago has not gone without note and comment.  It has caused some to comment on the state of capacity building in the world of nonprofits, suggesting that there has been an inundation of capacity building resources into the marketplace and that there is a need for significant changes in capacity building.

On the other side of the country The Ventura County Star ran an editorial last week that started with the following:  “Running a nonprofit can be a tough job these days.”  The editorial’s purpose was not to bemoan this truth, but to commend California Lutheran University for its wisdom in providing a new home for the Center for Nonprofit Leadership and praise the capacity building work the center has done over the course of its 24-year history.  Sadly, last September, it became collateral damage from the financial troubles of the Ventura County Community Foundation, leaving the nonprofits of Ventura County without its valuable assistance.

At a time when too many foundations have moved away from supporting capacity building, finding it too complicated to prove both short and long-term impact of this enormously varied work, and too many nonprofits want the down and dirty response (notice I didn’t say fix) rather than doing the work that capacity building requires, why have these two capacity building organizations been given new life?  Is it to reinvent or to continue what they have been doing?

It must be the latter, because the latter must, if capacity building is to be successful, include the former:  good capacity building is, almost by definition, constantly looking to reinvent, develop new approaches, make changes, if it is to serve its audience well.  And, herein lies the problem:  so much that is not capacity building gets jumbled under its banner that too few know capacity building when they see it, and even fewer recognize good, quality capacity building.

And, yet, when done well and right, it is of such profound benefit to an organization, the proverbial feeding for life as opposed to one day—or, in the case of nonprofits, more like six months to 12 months.  But, as we all know, it is much harder to actually fish and assess the value of the fish than it is to take a fish from someone else.

But if someone does all of the heavy lifting for you, there is no possibility of improving your own capacity.  If a consultant comes in and talks with you, grabs a superficial understanding of your organization, asks you and others in your organization some questions, and even facilitates a retreat, but then goes off and comes back later and hands you a strategic plan, that is not strategic planning a la capacity building.

Your organization has a strategic plan, to which it gave little input and effort, which, yes, can guide the organization, if followed.  But as experience repeatedly shows time across many different landscapes, those who aren’t invested in a process tend not to chase the outcome.  Following footprints on the dance floor allows you to “dance”, but that doesn’t mean you have learned to dance and can do it on your own.

Sadly, we have tracked so far afield from what true capacity building is all about, as every Tom, Dick and Hannah have come to hang out their shingles as capacity building consultants—oddly, and ironically, a favorite (but not by funders) buzz word.

As director of the oldest nonprofit capacity builder in Pennsylvania, this worries me as nonprofits get fooled into thinking they are getting something they are not.

Capacity building is not giving organizations tools, like a board development plan or a communications strategy or a strategic plan.  It is about taking them through the process and teaching them at every step of the way what they are doing and why.  It is a more consultant and client labor intensive process than traditional consulting, so why would anyone—consultant or nonprofit—want to do it?  Because it about learning, a nonprofit learning to do things on their own.  And why would a nonprofit want to do that?  For sustainability, to preserve dollars for mission delivery, for doing the things that they absolutely can’t do on their own, for creating a reserve fund, and my list goes on.

But nonprofits—and consultants—want the easy and cheap ways, despite the fact that those options are replete with limitations.  There are plenty of tools for capacity building available on the Internet; name what you need and there are zillions of samples and templates, often with accompanying instructions, of how to get there readily.  There are almost as many consultants with no knowledge of, or experience in, the sector happy to tell you what you want to hear, agree with what you want.  But the Internet and inexperience can’t push back, can’t peel back the layers of the onions, and can’t ask the right and pertinent questions.  And they definitely can’t help you identify the real horse that absolutely must go before the cart or risk building a cart that can’t be pulled.

The National Council of Nonprofits puts it well, when is says that capacity building “is not just about the capacity of a nonprofit today — it’s about the nonprofit’s ability to deliver its mission effectively now and in the future.  Capacity building is an investment in the effectiveness and future sustainability of a nonprofit.”  An investment.  When will nonprofits come to really understand the importance of investing in themselves, in their staff, in their futures?  When will nonprofits come to understand that day trading doesn’t work in the nonprofit sector and that if you really want to make advances, you need to invest today to see the return down the road?

The Ventura County Star’s editorial actually made a call to action and encouraged funders—from foundations to corporations to individuals—to make an investment (a donation to) in the center.  And, it added one final laurel to California Lutheran University’s crown, applauding the university’s president for taking on the Center for the right reasons—not money and marketing opportunities—but rather its commitment “to excellence, leadership and betterment of the community.”  What every leader—be s/he paid or volunteer leader—should want those same things for her/his organization?


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