Do Capacity Building Programs Help Nonprofits Achieve Better Results? | Beth's Blog

Do Capacity Building Programs Help Nonprofits Achieve Better Results?

Capacity, Guest Post

Note from Beth:My long-time colleague, Teresa Crawford, Executive Director, Social Sector Accelerator, shares some thoughts about nonprofit capacity building programs based on extensive research.  Her answer to the question about capacity building programs leading to better impact will surprise you.

If you know me or have worked with me before you know I like to plan. It is so part of my personality that even on vacation my kids wake up in the morning and ask what’s the plan for the day. So, imagine how I must have felt two years ago when I became the Executive Director of the Social Sector Accelerator. All the planning was ahead of me to deliver on our mission to increase investment in the social sector, improve partnerships – particularly between local actors and their supporters – and provide support for strong, resilient and impactful nonprofits.

In addition to the countless lunches, coffees, roundtables, focus groups and other opportunities for feedback and discussion I engaged in I also dug into the evidence on the impacts of capacity building on organizations. I dug into the link between the wider theories of capacity development and building strong, resilient nonprofit organizations capable of achieving impact in their communities and on the issues they tackle every day. Answering these two questions is important to us at the Accelerator. We believe that any measurement of the impact of investment in strong organizations should ultimately come back to demonstrating the additional impact organizations are able to achieve after receiving this kind of support.

In all our research, we found 3 challenges to making sense of the evidence:

  1. Capacity Building Divorced from Results

Last year we worked with a team from IO Sustainability to look at what the literature had to say about linking organizational strengthening to mission impact. Of the 50 studies we reviewed just one started with the question – “What skills, capacities are needed to help us achieve our mission? How will we build those skills and capabilities” The rest of the studies we reviewed made the assumption that stronger organizations lead to increased impact. But this was left as an unexamined assumption.

The results of this dive into the literature left me feeling very dissatisfied. Why do we do what we do if not to make people’s lives better, their communities safer or increase access to quality education? If organizations are focused on those types of measurable results then why aren’t investments in organizations focused on helping groups achieve the durable results they define?

  1. The Forgotten Roots of Capacity Development in the Movement for Ownership and Empowerment

Besides diving into the literature on evidence of impact we also spent time reviewing our own approaches for supporting leaders, organizations and networks. Our practice emerged (and it truly emerged – our parent organization Counterpart International developed its theory of change after over 50 years of working in communities around the world) and was grounded in community led development. When we focused our attention on supporting organizations and networks we built an approach that emphasized their ownership and leadership of the process.  Our role was to coach, support, mentor where necessary – but never to lead.

Much of the current language and practice around capacity development seems to have forgotten the roots of the capacity development movement of the 1980s.  Capacity development as a practice emerged from the dissatisfaction with externally led, paternalistic, technocratic support offered by donors and Western nations. The lack of results achieved through an expert led model led to the emergence of a new way of working where leadership of change and the definition of results was in the hands of the countries and organizations doing the work.

While some of the existing programs, tools and approaches still prioritize experts and prioritize investments in groups disconnected from the communities they serve, I was heartened by the discussion taking place around Kathy Enright’s blog post on redefining effectiveness and the comments from Vu Le in his post. Who is defining results anyway?

“The ability to assess and achieve results does not mean that an organization is inherently effective – especially if program models and theories of change are rooted in false narratives about the causes of inequity, or if the results are not those most desired by the people and communities being served.” – We Need a New Definition of Effectiveness – Kathy Enright – GEO Funders

Investments in organizational strengthening have to begin with an organization led formulation of the results they are seeking in their programs and related to their mission.

  1. Tools, Tools, and more Tools

When social change issues are complex, we can sometimes default to creating a set of tools to make sense of them. We are not the only sector that falls into that trap. One set of resources that I didn’t find lacking was the plethora of tools available to organizations and foundations who want to improve the way they function. Thanks to the Hewlett Foundation team and their colleagues at Informing Change for putting together an amazing list of all the tools they could find.

While we may be swimming in tools there are several significant gaps –

  1. Overall the tools were weak on measuring commitment and practice related to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  2. Most had weak measures of accountability especially towards clients, beneficiaries and community.
  3. Few were accompanied by a strong statement about commitment to process that prioritizes ownership and empowerment.
  4. Most, besides the great Leap of Reason Performance Imperative tool, had weak links between organizational strength and results measurement.

The old adage remains true – we measure what we care about.

As a result of our research, discussions, experimentation and after spending two years with our own programs and their data and the programs and data of colleagues in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations community we’ve come full circle on the discussion of organizational strengthening.

We believe that properly supported capacity development is itself important because it places local organizations at the center of the solution. We think this makes for greater impact, but more importantly believe it is the right thing to do.”

We are convinced of the importance of inclusive and participatory design and planning of organizational strengthening interventions. A successful intervention must demonstrate that stronger organizations can achieve greater impact. Its only by clearly defining and focusing on a shared understanding of results that we can have any hope of learning what does and does not work in our quest to build strong nonprofits.

I am happy to say that after two years we, at the Accelerator, have a much stronger plan. We are coaching foundations to adopt a capacity building mindset and provide more relevant support to their grantee partners. In February 2018, we are hosting our first Organizational Strengthening Design Workshop. We will be building on the concepts laid out above to help foundation leaders build a useful and impactful program. We are building a cohort of peers leading programs in their foundations to reenergize people around building strong, resilient and impactful organizations in the social sector.


Teresa Crawford is the Executive Director of the Social Sector Accelerator. 

7 Responses

  1. Teresa – Great post. Thank you for sharing your results.

    I’m very interested in capacity building as a best practice for nonprofit organizations. A recent research project I co-authored with Adrian Sargeant found that fundraising (major gift) training was correlated with an average increase in $37K raised… in other words, a very strong relationship between fundraising training (capacity building) and results (additional funds raised). The research results can be found at http://www.MasteringMajorGifts.com/report.

    I hope that is useful. I look forward to hearing more
    about your work. Thank you.

  2. John Brothers says:

    Thanks for this – really great article. The one thing I would add is that we have seen a couple examples, outside of the Leap Tool, specifically using the CCAT and iCAT, where organizational assessment has been used to show results measurement. The newest data I have seen has shown that actually the best capacity tool is the assessment as both organizations have seen increases in their capacity by self-correcting and that board and staff results showed a better alignment on capacity over time. Couple of good examples there. Look forward to seeing you at the Design Workshop in 2018.

  3. Clive says:

    Thanks for the interesting article. You value what you measure so are we building capacity for capacity’s sake or with a greater good in mind. Organisations exist for a purpose so measuring how capacity strengthening is contributing to that purpose and overall organizational performance would seem to be the way forward. A lot of the tools are quite qualitative in nature which is fine but it does make it difficult to accurately measure progress and organizational capacity in my experience of working with civil society organizations in developing countries is stubbornly low and is in part to organizational governance issues but is also a product of the broader context. Therefore as much as we have interventions to strengthen organizations with their capacity what steps are we taking to address the contextual issues. The global standard for CSO accountability https://accountablenow.org/future-accountability/global-standard/ may be one avenue among others to foster a healthier context in which CSOs operate.

  4. Kim Maynard says:

    Well said, Teresa! I love the inquiry into why measure impact and not getting too caught up in the tools. I would add to your excellent emphasis on linking capacity building to organizational impact that we often lose sight of the organization’s ultimate purpose. By helping an organization to be effective, may mean that it simply does what it does well. The question can still remain as to whether what it does is of real value or is the thing that most needs to be done. That is a larger level assessment! Thanks for the great thinking!

  5. Thanks for this Theresa — If I could add my two-cents:

    The necessity of capacity building development programs stems from a systemic flaw in the nonprofit sector.

    A for-profit generates enough income to fund its own capacity so it aligns its investment in operations with its front end objectives. More revenue is in turn produced to supports its ongoing operations in a ‘virtuous circle’ of investment in its own capacity.

    This circle of support does not exist for the most part in the nonprofit sector. The non-profit often relies on multiple donors to fund its front end programs, and these funding entities often have caps on operational support leaving the non-profit:

    a) Not in control of defining how to invest in and support its own operations which in turn are supposed to support its front end program execution.

    b) chronically underfunded in the operations area.

    Funder support is also based on the funder’s criteria which is different for each funder, meaning the nonprofit is trying to meet a whole bunch of different third party requirements concurrently with less resources to do it and with resource support criteria that often differ from its own organizational priorities.

    Capacity Building programs are often a band-aid — that is, necessary given the system, but insufficient – They represent another third party providing support for the organization focused more on it’s operations and less on its front end programs — and for a limited period of time. But the idea of the front end continually generating enough support to invest in the back-end which in turn strengthens the front-end to generate more revenue is still often missing.

    What a non profit really needs is an ability to invest in both its front and back end in a sustained way that aligns both to meet its organizational objectives. The best long term solution to do this is for the non-profit to be able to actually generate enough income to support most of its back end so that it is not relying on multiple donors to do that disjointedly.

    Since donor missions are designed to show program results
    that’s what they will always fund first. The more successful nonprofits figure out a way to support their own back-end operations while soliciting grants for their front end program activities.

    I say this as a former foundation Director and grant program provider and as the founder and Board Chair of Aspiration, an independent non-profit I spun off while at the Open Society Foundation seventeen years ago that generates most of its operations revenue from service provision to other non-profits.

  6. Jill Roberts says:

    Accountability is definitely a missing peace of most programs. That can make it or brake it any campaign.

  7. Thanks to Amy, John, Clive, Kim, Jonathan and Jill for the comments on my post. A few thoughts:

    Amy – your results on fundraising are interesting. I am curious about two things related to that kind of targeted support – what is the long term impact and how is improved fundraising ability related to other organizational capacities. Another study we reviewed found that a focus on fundraising can show short term gains but results in longer term negative impacts on organizations who steer program resources to fundraising.

    John – I am also looking forward to seeing you at the Design Workshop next month. I agree that sometimes the assessment process itself has a net positive effect on an organization. Just the act of questioning – what are our strengths? what more do we need to be successful in achieving our mission?

    Clive – nice to see you comment! I agree wholeheartedly that the path forward seems to be “Organisations exist for a purpose so measuring how capacity strengthening is contributing to that purpose and overall organizational performance would seem to be the way forward.” and we will be testing this in our Design Workshop. Your comment links well with Kim’s comment. There is a much wider discussion to have about which ‘purpose’ driven organizations deserve investment and who gets to make that decision.

    Your experience with strengthening the wider enabling environment definitely resonates. Organizations do not exist in a vacuum and any intervention has to consider both their purpose and the wider context within which they operate.

    JP – Great job pointing out that in many ways the Emperor has no clothes. One of the many reasons I have enjoyed working with you over the years! Nonprofits and foundations are in the mess they are in over measuring impact of organizational strengthening is because of the very issues you raise.

    The more nonprofits can generate income that they can invest in their back-end operations all the better. In the mean time, given the current system, nonprofits can also think of foundations as investors – investors they need to convince to invest in their organizations to realize the purpose/mission they were established to achieve. If foundations can view themselves in this way as well they will be more inclined to invest in people, systems, infrastructure in a way they are not currently.

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