I was going to write an eloquent (and boring) article about the genre of grant writing (I’ve got to put that English degree to use, right?), but I attended a grant information session this morning that stirred some thoughts about a more immediate (and practical) nonprofit need – Capacity Building. What it is and what it isn’t. Louisville nonprofits have an extraordinary track record of providing innovative programs that enhance the quality of life in this community, but so many struggle with the means to carry them out.
Historically, foundations have supported new and exciting programs with the largest community impact across socioeconomic lines. More recently, as financial belts tighten in the nonprofit sector, foundations are looking beyond programming to longevity and sustainability. Foundations want to leave a financial imprint that will change the cultural and economic landscape of the community over the course of time. Meanwhile, as foundations are turning their attention to longevity/sustainability, nonprofits are increasingly aware of the growing needs of individuals recovering from the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Nonprofits want to increase programming, staff, and operations to meet the demand for services. In an effort to accomplish this, nonprofits often get bogged down in being a “jack of all trades, master of none” mentality. They lack the capacity to maintain the wonderful and necessary programs the community depends on. After hearing sitting in on this morning’ discussion about what qualifies (and what doesn’t) as capacity building for a highly competitive grant, it seems that true capacity building continues to elude some folks in the nonprofit sector. While I am in no position to make a declarative statement on the issue that will end the debate for time eternal, I am interested in getting at the heart of said debate.
As the Effective Capacity Building in Nonprofit Organizations report for Venture Philanthropy Partners (McKinsey & Company (2001)) aptly points out
Nonprofits have an obligation to seek new and even more effective ways of making tangible progress towards their missions, and this requires building organizational capacity. All too many nonprofits, however, focus on creating new programs and keeping administrative costs low instead of building the organizational capacity necessary to achieve their aspirations effectively and efficiently…This must change: both nonprofit managers and those that fund them must recognize that excellence in programmatic innovation and implementation are insufficient for nonprofits to achieve lasting results. Great programs need great organizations behind them
(emphasis mine). The Council of Nonprofits defines capacity building as “activities that improve and enhance a nonprofit’s ability to achieve its mission and sustain itself over time” (emphasis mine). The word “activities” does not and should not imply “programming.” Focusing on the core of the organization will enhance, improve and lengthen the overall impact the organization has on the community. Think of capacity building in terms of assessment, strategy, or development. What are the needs of the organization? Where are you now and where do you want to go? These are the questions that can frame your thinking about capacity building.
One other item to consider when thinking about capacity building for your organization is “Are you ready?” Have you ever heard the saying “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?” Preparedness is essential to effective capacity building. This checklist is a useful tool in determining if your organization is positioned to pursue capacity building efforts. Having everyone (board members, key staff, etc.) focused on the same goal, i.e., capacity building for future success, is crucial – it appears first on the checklist. Another item is “Organization has a strong set of core programs or services.” I consistently hear colleagues say this to their nonprofit clients – “decide what you do and do it well.” Not every nonprofit can meet the various and sundry needs of the entire community – not even close. Streamlining existing programming in favor of (1) building expertise and (2) meeting specific needs in a spectacular way will bolster any organization’s capacity building goals.
Invest in your future and work toward your mission. As the Council of Nonprofits advises, “Capacity building is not just about the capacity of a nonprofit today — it’s about the future.” Forgetting your organization’s mission is easy to do when trying to meet the daily needs of, well, everyone –board members, staff, clientele, etc. Successful capacity building, strengthening from the inside out, unburdens members of your organization to perform their tasks more efficiently and more effectively, augmenting your organization’s overall performance and longevity.