Effective capacity building support is contextual, continuous, and collective

Printer-friendly version

To gain insights to what grantmakers are currently thinking about nonprofit capacity building, Jennifer Chandler, our vice president and director of network support & knowledge sharing, recently interviewed Lori Bartczak, vice president of programs at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). GEO is a community for grantmakers committed to building stronger and more effective nonprofits.

Jennifer Chandler, National Council of Nonprofits: Lori, at GEO you are in a unique position to observe how grantmakers think about funding for capacity building. What are you and your colleagues at GEO seeing?

Lori Bartczak, GEO: What we’re seeing is that as the demand for services from nonprofits continues to rise in communities everywhere, more funders are recognizing capacity building as a critical way to support strong organizations that are equipped to rise to the challenge.

JC: Are there specific types of capacity building funding that grantmakers find more valuable than others to invest in?

Lori Bartczak: In our most recent study in 2011, Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter, we found that a slight majority (65%) of the grantmakers that participated in our survey provided some type of capacity-building support to grantees. The areas they funded tended to be: leadership development, fundraising capacity, evaluation capacity, communications, and technology. When we publish our new report later this year we’ll see whether those categories remain at the forefront.

JC: Can you give us a sneak peek into the new findings?

Lori Bartczak: What we know so far from a listening tour with both funders and leaders of nonprofits is that questions persist about how to build strong nonprofit boards; how to build and track budgets in uncertain times; and how to look at questions of decision-making and leadership. We have also learned that one solution does not fit every problem, because each leader and organization is unique, and circumstances are always changing, so capacity building has to be contextual.

JC: What exactly do you mean that capacity building support needs to be “contextual?”

Lori Bartczak: By “contextual” we mean that it’s essential for capacity building to be tailored to meet the unique characteristics and needs of individual nonprofits, because effective capacity building is influenced by variable characteristics such as the organization’s geography, life cycle stage, and revenue sources, among other factors. Grantmakers want to support their grantees in having the greatest impact possible, and capacity building is a key means of achieving that end. But the diversity of the organizations that grantmakers support makes it difficult to be clear on best practices. Based on fifteen years of experience with our members and conversations with nonprofit leaders, GEO believes that by taking an approach that is contextual (tailored to the unique needs of the grantee), continuous (taking the long view), and collective (considering how the parts add up), grantmakers will be well positioned to provide capacity building support in ways that effectively support nonprofits to achieve lasting impact.

JC: Can you share an example of “contextual capacity building” assistance?

Lori Bartczak: One example is capacity building support through an award established by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, called the “Flexible Leadership Awards” program, which provides long-term, customized leadership support to grantees. The award recognizes that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to leadership development. Access to longer term support allows the nonprofit board and staff to step back and think expansively about what their organization wants to achieve and the leadership challenges ahead.

JC: Do you have any suggestions for how nonprofits can help their funders take a more contextual approach?

Lori Bartczak: Last year we traveled around the country and held focus groups with nonprofit leaders to get a better understanding of their capacity needs. One nonprofit leader described an exemplary relationship with one particular program officer. She said: “She will have lunch with us, she visits, she’ll call us because she heard something that might be of relevance to our work. I see her in the community, at coalition meetings, in city meetings. She’s not just sitting in her office. I’m impressed with her because she cares about what we—her funded organizations—are doing. That’s big. We have a relationship, and because of this I am more likely to call her with a concern or a problem, or to let her know what we’re up to so she won’t be blindsided.”

JC: I can imagine that funders might not be wild about GEO’s second finding, of “continuous” capacity building funding, so how should a nonprofit make the case for longer-term support?

Lori Bartczak: Nonprofit leaders repeatedly tell us that funders are not providing capacity-building funding with an appropriate time horizon. At the listening sessions we heard many stories of partially completed capacity-building projects that ended up not meeting their original objectives due to the lack of funding to cover costs required to implement and maintain the work. So we are seeing the need for continuity --

Funders build our capacity, and then what?” one leader asked. “The funders are going to walk away, and we have to be able to sustain whatever they helped us build. A lot of the challenge with capacity building is the question of how we’re going to sustain the work after the funders are done helping us.”

JC: Are foundations aware of the realistic need for long term capacity building, or “continuous” funding as you call it?

Lori Bartczak: Yes, some are. Grantmakers who do this work well devote a considerable share of their time and resources to capacity building and endeavor to establish a strong and open relationship with grantees. For example, one program officer advised fellow-grantmakers to take the long view in their capacity-building work like this: “Be willing to stick with programs longer than three years… While it’s always good to be open to new ideas, funders can sometimes jump from one fad to the next without giving programs enough time to produce results or taking the time to learn from both success and failure.”

JC: In addition to understanding the context, and accepting that capacity building is not usually effective as a short-term intervention, what other measures has GEO noted are needed to promote effective capacity building?

Lori Bartczak: Many successful capacity-building programs reach beyond the executive director role to engage a team that is drawn from multiple levels of the organization. Since people remember and respond to learning new things better when they are in a group, effective capacity building often benefits from a “collective” approach. Also, grantmakers can look for opportunities to collaborate with other grantmakers to leverage investments in capacity and provide more organizations comprehensive support to grantees. Because building capacity requires a significant, ongoing investment, grantmakers might look for opportunities to collaborate with other grantmakers to leverage their individual investments and thereby collectively provide more comprehensive support to grantees. Another way to look at the collective approach is to think about the overall capacity of the set of organizations that are vital to the issue you work to address—whether that set is bound by a geographic area or an issue area – take a systems approach to building capacity.

JC: Can you share an example of this type of collective approach?

Lori Bartczak: In Washington State nine funders were working collectively to build the capacity of the nonprofit ecosystem across the state. The funders came together in 2009 in response to the challenges facing the nonprofit sector as a result of the economic recession. They commissioned an assessment of capacity building in Washington State that found a disinclination for thinking systematically about capacity building at a state or community level, and recommended specific investments and strategies—from providing more general operating support, to filling gaps in knowledge and service delivery. Since 2010, investments from the collaborative include an online directory of vetted consultants and resources related to capacity building, targeted funding to rural areas in the state, and the creation of an organization (Washington Nonprofits) that aims to provide a voice for nonprofits across the state through advocacy, education, capacity building, and networking.

JC: Thank you, Lori, to you and your colleagues at GEO for highlighting practices that can help grantmakers feel more comfortable with funding capacity building.

For even more information on this topic, we recommend that you read this article by Lori that inspired this interview: Supporting Nonprofit Capacity: Three Principles for Grantmakers (Nonprofit Quarterly, December 2013).


Find Your State Association of Nonprofits

Connect with local resources and expertise


Connect With Us

1. Sign up for updates

Stay up-to-date with the latest nonprofit resources and trends by subscribing to our free e-newsletters.

2. Follow us on social media