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Dive into capacity building with a solid sense of readiness

So you want to build capacity? Preparation is key. Here's what to consider before embarking on an organizational capacity-building initiative.

Clarify your mission

The British group NCVO (National Council of Voluntary Organizations) suggests starting any capacity-building effort with these questions:

  • Why does your organization exist?
  • What do you add to the community that no one else does?

A clear and straightforward articulation of the mission can help you avoid drifting into other areas and ensure you focus your capacity-building efforts where they matter most.

Assemble your internal team

Capacity-building activities may include a shift in your organization's mindset or a change in culture. Leadership involvement and a clear definition of roles in the capacity-building process are essential. At a minimum, the team should include the executive director or chief executive, select board members and key staff — all of whom should serve as enthusiastic ambassadors for capacity building.

Assess your readiness

To establish benchmarks for your capacity-building efforts, consider your organization's current status in key areas.

The Center for Public Skills Training recommends an assessment of:

  • Mission, vision and strategy
  • Governance and leadership
  • Service delivery and impact
  • Resource development
  • Strategic relationships
  • Internal operations and management

Do you have a clear need for increased capacity in any of these areas? Or perhaps some more than others?

Secure funding

Increasingly, capacity-building grants are available from foundations that recognize the value of the process. The Grantsmanship Center characterizes dedicated capacity-building funding as a way to show the value of building management systems as well as programs. By improving your organization's operations, you're strengthening your ability to serve your clients.

Here's a short list of examples of capacity-building grants, which come in a range of shapes and sizes:

  • The Wilburforce Foundation offers capacity-building grants for environmental organizations in the western United States
  • Washington, D.C.-based Meyer Foundation offers one- and two-year capacity-building grants for children and family-oriented organizations
  • Lloyds Bank Foundation offers grants of up to £15,000 for registered U.K. charities who've identified clear development areas that will support their growth
  • Arts Council England provides funding to help arts organizations build their capacity in fundraising and to attract more private giving

The Grantsmanship Center issues this reminder: "Funders want to improve organizations — not rescue them." Preparation for capacity building is the ideal time to make sure your house is in order, and that improved capacity will expand your core strengths.

Communicate process and goals

Once the high-level decisions have been made — the how and why of capacity building — the goals and rationale must be conveyed to stakeholders. A case study by Venture Partners found that communication of goals reinforces the message that a nonprofit isn't building capacity for the sake of building capacity, but rather for increasing the organization's social impact.

Consider outside help

An outside perspective to offer the big-picture view can be invaluable in the capacity-building process. A Bridgespan study found that outside expertise can be critical in helping organizations develop their measurement approaches, such as which indicators to track, which data collection methods to use, and how to communicate results.

Sometimes, capacity-building grants come with a stipulation that an outside consultant be hired. Other times, grantmaking foundations supply a consultant as an in-kind portion of the capacity-building grant. Paid and pro bono consulting is also available from independent capacity-building firms.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Knowhow Nonprofit: Capacity building

Access: Our timetable for capacity building

Create the Future: Capacity building overview

Venture Philanthropy Partners: Effective capacity building in nonprofit organizations

The Bridgespan Group: Building capacity to measure and manage performance by Matthew Forti and Kathleen Yazbak (2009)

OD Practitioner: Evaluating capacity-building efforts for nonprofit organizations by Paul Connolly and Peter York (2002)



Baltimore-based writer and educator