We can come up with fancy new terms for capacity building, but it comes down to two elements: support the right people and remove barriers that prevent them from succeeding.
Some people think capacity building is boring. Well, I think it’s sexy, and I’ve spent many hours writing romantic poems about it:
"Can Love’s arrows seek truest rapture/Without the quiver of Infrastructure?/Can e’er Equity take flight and sing/Save with steadfast Capacity ‘neath her wings?"
(What, like your hobbies are SOOO much more interesting).
Since most of my work is now focused on building capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits, I’m glad that there seems to be a resurgence of people talking about capacity building. Here’s a great paper from Grantcraft with cool concrete recommendations for funders including a brief discussion on the importance of general operating funds for capacity building. And here’s one from the TCC Group on what they call “Capacity Building 3.0.” According to this briefing paper, Capacity Building 1.0 is about individuals, Capacity Building 2.0 is about nonprofit institutions, and 3.0 is about the entire nonprofit ecosystem, which includes funders, businesses, even the government.
These white papers are all written by very intelligent people who have thought long and hard about the critical role that capacity building plays in our ability to do our work. After reading through them and other articles on the topic, I want to offer some reflections and recommendations.
First, when people talk about capacity building, it ironically seems to be about larger organizations that have some of what one of my colleagues calls “Prerequisite Capacity,” that is, a certain level of existing capacity without which no further capacity can be built. Kind of like when you’re in high school or college, and you cannot take a class until you have some prerequisite classes under your belt. Many white papers addressing capacity building seem to be targeted toward larger orgs that already have some basic level of infrastructure, and need support to further develop. However, a significant portion of our sector comprises smaller, more grassroot organizations that are only starting to develop their infrastructure. Capacity Building needs to differentiate between these levels, because the strategies needed for each are completely different. I would say that not enough focus is given to strategies to help organizations develop Prerequisite Capacity. Instead, we get wall-pounding frustration in the form of “We won’t help you develop your capacity until you develop some capacity.” There needs to be more funding for Prerequisite Capacity.
Second, I’m glad the role of diversity, equity, and inclusion in capacity building is starting to be recognized and talked about. However, there is still a long way to go. Most communities-of-color-led nonprofits do not fall into the same path/organization-cycle/strategy as more mainstream organizations. Current definitions may not apply to them, and the entire paradigm around building their capacity needs to shift, as I’ve written about in “Capacity Building for communities of color: The paradigm must shift.” Applying mainstream capacity building principles to nonprofits of color is like forcing a man to fish when he’s a skilled farmer standing on fertile soil.
Third, I am astounded by our sector’s ability to overthink and over-complicate things while ignoring the obvious. We keep thinking of new terminologies and concepts, which gives us the illusion that we’re actually making progress. Why stop at Capacity 3.0? Capacity 4.0 is about increasing organizations’ ability to centralize back-office services and shared physical space. Capacity 5.0 is about networked nonprofit synergy for collective advocacy. Capacity 6.0: Harvesting Midi-chlorians and using The Force to improve infrastructure.
This approach can be dangerous, because we get distracted and do not pay sufficient attention to the critical factors that are at the heart of the issue (See “The frustration with innovation: Bright Shiny Object Syndrome and its effects on the nonprofit sector.”)
But things happen in cycles. So with that in mind, I’d like to propose we skip the next several iterations of Capacity Building and get back to basic with Capacity 9.0: Fund People To Do Stuff And Get the Hell Out Of Their Way, or FPTDSAGTHOOTW for short.
Fund People To Do Stuff
For a sector that relies so heavily on people, it is incredible how much reluctance, sometimes even disdain, there is in supporting nonprofit staff. A funder of a particularly large grant that I’m trying to get, for example, made it amply clear that no more than 10% of their funds are to be used for staff to administer the project; and in fact, they also don’t want to pay for the living stipends for program participants either. I’ve had corporations tell me to my face that they’ll support any program expenses except staffing. And one foundation who just won’t fund existing staff; yup, new staff is fine, because existing staff should have already found a way to sustain themselves, those lazy bums.
For capacity building, and in general, we seem to forget that it is people who do stuff, not tiny elusive nonprofit elves who appear each night after we leave our cubicles. For some reason, toolkits, workshops, peer circles, seminars, conferences, webinars, summits, and white papers are far sexier to fund than supporting the people who use the toolkits, attend the workshops and seminar and conferences and summits, read the white papers, implement strategies, etc. So many capacity building efforts fail because we do not invest enough in people to carry out these efforts. And any effort to build the capacity of communities of color that does not take staffing into account will fail completely. Many of these orgs do amazing work but don’t have a single full-time staff, so funding anything without strategically funding staffing first will be ineffective.
An analogy that I love is from Blue Avocado’s editor, Jan Masaoka: We keep funding hammers and other tools, and don’t spend nearly enough on carpenters, the people who will actually be using these tools. This is why endless toolkits, white papers, and strategic plans sit on some resource page of a website gathering dust.
We cannot teach someone to fish if there is no one there to be taught. We can fund an organization to attend workshops on fundraising and hire a consultant to create a development plan, but how will that work if an organization does not have dedicated fundraising staff? We can talk about building networks that include funders and businesses and government working together as the next evolution of capacity building, but how will that work if organizations don’t have staff to send to develop these partnerships? We can fund communities-of-color-led nonprofits to get together to collectively develop an advocacy strategy, but how will that work if after this effort is done they still don’t have staffing capacity to implement the plan?
Nonprofit professionals are the heart of the work. No capacity building strategy will work without this most basic element. Stop funding toolkits that no one will use!
“If we had more carpenters,” says Jan Masaoka, “they would buy more hammers; they’d drive up demand. A carpenter-driven market would drive quality, usefulness and price in hammers. If only foundations would fund fewer new hammer factories, and instead fund a lot more carpenters, we might actually see more houses built.” We must increase our investment in people.
Again, I’d like to point out the importance of staff when it comes to communities-of-color-led organizations. Capacity building has not worked for these orgs, who provide critical services. In Seattle, many have been around for years, even decades, and still struggle to grow because historically, funding for capacity building has been going to trainings and workshops and consultants, without consideration of who will implement stuff. This is why my organization, Rainier Valley Corps, is focused on bringing carpenters of color into the field; capacity building for communities of color will not work until we have enough nonprofit professionals of color at the right places and we support the ones who exist.
Get Out of People’s Way
Capacity cannot just be about efforts to improve infrastructure, but also the efforts to remove barriers that are actively preventing capacity from developing. Many of these barriers, frankly, are created by funders, and because of power dynamics, we just put up with them.
I mentioned in an earlier post on sustainability that funders’ asking nonprofits how we will be sustainable is like setting a fire and asking nonprofits how we will put it out. (See “The sustainability question, why it is so annoying.”) Capacity building is the same way. Funders are trying to enhance organizations’ capacity while simultaneously perpetuating damaging practices that prevent capacity from developing. Let’s make grantees spend 15 hours on a grant proposal budget detailing every pencil to be bought; and then let’s fund some workshops on time management for nonprofit leaders. Let’s give small restrictive one-year grants that people cry into their pillow each night about, and then let’s fund a seminar on self-care. Let’s not fund existing staff, but do pay for consultants to talk about staff retention.
The examples are endless and exhausting. I read in one of the white papers mentioned above about a foundation who funded a peer learning effort around effective ED transition since so many of its grantees were experiencing leadership changes. That’s great, but how about figuring out why the EDs are leaving in droves, and finding a way to stem the tide?
Capacity is actively prevented by restricted funds, pressure on nonprofits to keep overhead low, single-year one-time grants, unnecessary and burdensome reporting requirements, and the endless and annoying focus on “sustainability.” (See “Can we all just admit there is no such thing as nonprofit sustainability?”) We need to remove these barriers if we want to create an environment where organizations can thrive.
We can come up with fancy new terms and concept for capacity building, but it comes down to two elements: Supporting the right people so they are consistently there doing stuff, and then removing barriers that are preventing them from doing stuff and making them want to run screaming from the sector. THEN fund toolkits and workshops and peer learning circles and talk about ecosystems and partnerships, etc. With that in mind, here are 9 recommendations from Capacity Building 9.0:
- Provide multiyear General Operating funds
- Create programs that get students to think about nonprofit work as a viable career choice
- Support pipeline programs that get professionals to enter the field
- Advocate for increased salaries in general for professionals in the sector
- Fund strategies to decrease burnout, such as sabbaticals for leaders, including program, operation, and fundraising staff
- Streamline burdensome application and reporting processes
- Pay for both new and EXISTING staffing positions
- Support strategies that help develop prerequisite capacity (hint: It’s about staffing)
- Provide multiyear General Operating funds
What are your thoughts?
Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps. Known for his irreverent sense of humor, Vu's work has been featured at Nonprofit Quarterly, GuideStar's blog, Chronicle of Philanthropy, as well as dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com, formerly nonprofitwithballs.com.
This piece was originally published at Vu Le's blog, NonprofitAF.com.