Designing Transformative Communications Capacity Building Programs for Nonprofits | Beth’s Blog

Designing Transformative Communications Capacity Building Programs for Nonprofits

Training Design


I’ve been working in the nonprofit sector almost 35 years and 20 years ago I had the a front seat at the creation of a new field, nonprofit technology and using the Internet for mission driven work.    My first job was as a network coordinator for an online network of artists, called ArtsWire.    My job responsibilities:   designing and delivering capacity building programs for artists, arts organizations, and arts educators to gain these new skills.     I was lucky enough to have opportunities to co-teach with superb educators where I jokingly say that I acquired my degree in instructional design!     In addition,  I was lucky enough to be the online facilitator for a virtual leadership program for arts administrators co-hosted by the Cornell University School of Management where I learned and practiced a range of instructional techniques for teaching adults.

Teaching, leaning, and training has been my passion for 20 years.    So,I  was thrilled to facilitate an interactive panel at the Communications Network Conference in New Orleans last week on the topic of designing capacity building programs with colleagues Farra Trompeter,  Michael Hoffman, and Eva Penar.    Our interactive session at the Fall 2013 Communications Network Conference in New Orleans was a blend of content delivery and peer learning – a conversation about the value, different approaches and models, and best practices.  Betsey Russell captured the highlights of the content in this blog post, “Boosting Nonprofit Communication Capacity.”

Whether the model your foundation is using to help its grantees is a one-day master class or extended  program, in the end, success is about having participants apply what they’ve learned and make these new skills an organizational habit.  The tactics can include workshops, master classes, coaching, expert consultants or peer learning.

We asked participants to do a “think and write”  and jot down one idea that resonated before facilitating a grand synthesis of what we learned about designing more impactful capacity building programs for grantees.

Whether the model your foundation is using to help its grantees is a one-day master class or extended  program, in the end, success is about having participants apply what they’ve learned and make these new skills an organizational habit.  The tactics can include workshops, master classes expert consultants or peer learning.

We asked participants to do a “think and write”  and jot down one idea that resonated before facilitating a grand synthesis of what we learned about designing more impactful capacity building programs for grantees.  Here’s what we learned:

1.     Foundation Staff Involvment

How closely should a program officer work with the capacity builder to get the best results?      It is important for foundation staff to be involved in the design of the program, working collaboratively to identify outcomes, have check-ins along the way, and a dialogue at the end on improving the learning and skills transfer.  It is also important to honor readiness and vet participants carefully, not just select “favorite grantees.”

While it is important for grantees to understand the funder’s expectations,  funders do not want to be too hands-on – and allow for a safe space for the consultant to work with the grantees.   It also important to communicate clearly to grantees that the invitation to participate is optional and that they should not just sign on because they want to “please the funder.”

If your foundation is just getting starting in the delivery of capacity building programs,  make sure that there is an internal champion for the program and get others involved.

2.     Vet, Vet, Vet

Identifying which organizations and who should participant from the organizations is a critical design decision and can make or break a capacity building program.   Regardless of the subject matter or specific skills, it is important to have the executive director sign off, literally with a letter of agreement, acknowledging that they will allow staff time to participate and practice skills.  It is better to have a team from the organization participate, so that knowledge can be transferred to others, and that team should include individuals whose jobs are connected to the outcomes of the program.  Also,  it avoid having a lost investment if a participant changes jobs during the program.

When recruiting, screening, and vetting,  it is important that the capacity builder have an in-depth assessment technique that can accurately diagnose the organization’s current level of practice – as well as strengths and weaknesses.  This can help guide the curriculum, support peer exchanges, and also serve as a baseline for program evaluation.

3.     Instructional Design Matters

Transformative capacity building is not solely about the expertise of the consultant that you are working with, although that is important.  The curriculum and content has to support your overall outcomes for the program which will surely be about participants acquiring and applying skills and knowledge to reach a higher level outcome.    Look for a clear theory of change in the design document – what is the pathway from skill acquisition and application?  Is it a financial result – increased fundraising?  Is it engagement?  Is it policy change?  Make sure you can connect and align the dots.

Make sure you review a design document and pay careful attention to the learning opportunities for participants outside of the formal meeting times.  Are there exercises, project based or action learning or is it a content dump?

One-on-one consulting and coaching can be expensive.  How is the coaching and consulting being used to help the organizations gain the skills and being able to sustain them?  A good capacity building program allows participants to become more independent, not dependent on experts.

4.     One Size Does Not Fit All

Transformative capacity building programs can be scaled – they don’t need to be six-month long programs with intensive content and consult coaching. That can be an expensive investment.  Shorter programs with lighter or less intensive interactions can also work.    Eva Penar, marketing director for the Chicago Trust, described their nonprofit technology capacity building model that included a one-day workshop that launched a monthly meetings for a community of practice.  Working in partnership with NTEN, the national association for nonprofit techies,  was an efficient way for her foundation to launch and sustain a capacity building program.

5.     Using “Learning Analytics”

Don’t just be satisfied with a survey at the end asking participants to rate the experience, logistics, or presenters.   While you can learn a lot about how they applied what they learned, it is important to also use pre/post surveys to measure that transformative of skills and capacity.      It is also important to use “learning analytics,” data that helps you measure participants’ progress along the way.  This can help you make midcourse improvements to the program and get to better results.

What are the most important things you need to think about when designing and delivering a capacity building program for your foundation’s grantees?   What have you learned about what works?

This post was cross-posted as a guest post over the Communications Network Blog.