Building a Capacity Building Program with a Purpose

The Accelerator team has spent the last several months working with the staff of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation to explore options for a foundation supported program to support their grantee partners in the El Paso region.

We are spending the week with foundation and partner staff to explore the challenges and opportunities to building organizations that can weather changes in their operating environment. In what ways can increased capacities and capabilities deliver improved health outcomes in their communities? What key capacities do they need to be more resilient? How can they improve their impact through increased use of data and experimentation?

Using design thinking approaches we are helping grantee staff identify their key staff knowledge, skills and capability needs. Using 'What's on Your Radar' with a range of organizations and staff is helping us identify areas of shared need and opportunities for collaborative skill building.

Prioritizing key knowledge, skills, capabilities that would improve their impact

Prioritizing key knowledge, skills, capabilities that would improve their impact

We built a Capacity Building Strategy Game to help foundation staff achieve alignment around the Purpose of the support they want to provide, the range of Activities or ways they might go about achieving that purpose and the Impacts they would like to see achieved. Will there be agreement between what the foundation thinks the purpose should be and what their grantee partners think? In what areas is there agreement and in what areas is their divergence?

Coming to agreement on Purpose, Activities and Impacts with Paso del Norte Health Foundation

Coming to agreement on Purpose, Activities and Impacts with Paso del Norte Health Foundation

Our work with Paso del Norte Health Foundation is part of our work promoting, understanding and developing the 'Capacity Dividend'. How much greater impact could an organization have if they and their funding partner invested in increasing their capacity and capabilities? What skills and capacities are needed to create a region driven by the power of healthy living?

Measuring the Capacity Dividend

One of the values that underpins the work of the Accelerator is placing a priority on evidence. If we are going to invest in something we want to have a sense of how much impact it will have. We also want to consider if an alternative investment would pay off in a bigger way.

In 2014 , our parent organization, Counterpart, embarked on a journey to improve their understanding of the impacts of the organizational strengthening services and coaching they provide to nonprofits around the world. In any given year Counterpart's teams in 30 countries are coaching upwards of 2,500 organizations who range from informal community based groups to some of the leading non-governmental organizations in their countries. 

Counterpart wanted to know, is it possible to effectively measure the impact such "capacity building" services have? Do these services truly lead to a "Capacity Dividend" - accelerating nonprofits' ability to pursue their purpose? If so, what approaches lead to the greatest impact and under what conditions? 

To get at these questions Counterpart conducts a biennial survey with the organizations it has provided services. While the data these surveys has generated supports the notion that capacity building is a smart business decision, it is not enough to truly evaluate impact. In addition to strengthening its own internal learning capacity and gathering regular feedback from the groups they support, Counterpart tasked us in the Social Sector Accelerator - Counterpart's innovation arm - to "learn out loud" with our peer intermediaries and foundations in the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations community.  

As a first step we partnered with IO Sustainability last year to conduct a landscape analysis of existing research on the impacts of capacity building on organizational strength and social impact. We reviewed research from nearly 60 academic, think-tank, and thought leader sources published after 1990. We also interviewed 11 leading practitioners from both grant-makers and capacity building service providers. The research was not limited to those sources that explicitly reference "capacity building," but also included any materials related to strategies for strengthening non-profit organizations. As part of the research we held formal and informal discussions at the 2016 GEO Conference and at Opportunity Collaboration. We held a brownbag in DC and a webinar with GEO members.

Questions from GEO Members: Where do funders pull their data from - anecdotal evidence or standards?

Questions from GEO Members: Where do funders pull their data from - anecdotal evidence or standards?

What we've learned is that the existing research, both anecdotally and qualitatively, largely supports the notion that organizations that receive capacity building support can achieve greater social impact. Beyond organizational strengthening, five studies provided findings on the social impact of capacity building. In four of the studies, these outcomes are not quantified. Instead the studies make an assumption that if organizations report improved effectiveness, then it is likely that they have enhanced their mission-related impacts. The fifth study looked at capacity building for Australian nonprofits working on improving farming and agricultural processes, where the goal of the interventions was to improve their R&D capacity. The results, over a three-year period, estimated $150M in economic and social benefits vs. $20M in capacity building program costs. These studies provide promising insights into how we might structure programs to better measure both organizational strengthen and mission impacts.

Unfortunately, on the whole, the review unearthed a lack of robust empirical research linking capacity building support with improvements in measures of organizational effectiveness, and even less research linking capacity building with greater social impact. We know Counterpart and other donors, foundations and non-profits need stronger evidence that investments in capacity building - instead of or in addition to - other forms of support pays off.

The landscape analysis suggests that the question is not whether certain types of capacity building are better or worse than others. Rather, the question grant-makers and nonprofits should ask is what kinds of capacity building will achieve the desired outcomes and optimize mission-related impacts.

We are taking what we've learned and applying it to our work. Next month we are starting work developing capacity building program options for a healthcare foundation. Each program option will include suggestions for how the foundation and their grantees can generate evidence of both organizational and mission impacts. We are also thinking about new ways to systematically measure the impact of our own capacity building efforts. More on this to come, but let's just say it has something to do with comparing ourselves to cash.

In the spirit of sharing you can find more on our Capacity Dividend research here:

If you will be at the GEO Funders Learning conference in Chicago in May and want to geek out over organizational strengthening and impact let me know.


WeWork Creator Awards - what we love and hate about grant competitions

Two weeks ago we submitted an application for the WeWork Creator Awards. A week later we found out we had not advanced to the second round of the competition. Competing in the award competition was a reminder to us of all the things we love and hate about grant competitions like the Creator Awards.

On March 9th, 2017, WeWork, the global cooperative workspace company, announced the WeWork Creator Awards competition.  This $20 million grants competition was open to start-ups in 5 countries where WeWork has a presence. We heard about the competition from one of our Board members and without hesitation decided to apply. The decision was easy for 3 reasons - 1) the barriers to entry were low, 2) we already had a well-defined sense of purpose and 3) we had concrete plans for how we would scale our work with additional funds - as anyone in the nonprofit space knows, this kind of unrestricted capital is the lifeblood of a growing, learning organization. 

Things we loved about the competition -

  1. Super quick turn around - we had a week to put together our application, make a video and click submit.
  2. Simple application process with low barriers to entry - the greatest single expense, besides our time, was the production of a high quality video. We didn't have to invest that much in a video but we knew that even if we didn't win we could make good use of the video to promote our work.
  3. Open ended questions which left us room to be creative.

Things we'd like to see done differently in the future -

  1. The benefits of an open-ended approach have their limits. It was not clear what WeWork is looking for from applicants and what their selection criteria was. In a world where startups are constantly searching and competing for funding, its useful if potential funders provide some signals of what they are looking for so that organizations can make a considered decision about which opportunities to pursue - every pursuit comes with opportunity costs. Heck - we don't even know who judged the first round applications.
  2. Once we didn’t get selected our application went into the WeWork black hole - no one knew we had applied except for WeWork and us, meaning no one could browse the applications to see if they wanted to invest. Today's cutting edge donors and investors know that while they can't support every startup that comes along, they can play a roll in lifting all boats in their ecosystem by providing a platform to promote even those ideas they don't support. 
  3. We received no feedback on our application - what was it about our pitch or our mission that didn’t fit their vision? This is another area where funders can lower the costs young organizations take on when applying - at least if we get some feedback we can grow from our failure. 

We are making lemonade out of these lemons. We now have a much clearer value proposition, we put up this new website, and we have a new video which showcases our organization, our mission and what we have to offer. We've run these type of competitions ourselves in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo and now we have even greater empathy for the applicants who put in hard work but don't advance beyond the application stage. How might we help them make more lemonade out of their own lemons? How might we be clearer in our expectations and the criteria for our decisions? How might we provide a platform to showcase all the possible solutions - even the ones we did not fund? What feedback could we provide that increases their chances of success in their next competition or pitch?

After our WeWork adventure we are checking out how others run their competitions and reading more on the underlying theories behind prize competitions - the evidence that they spur innovation and contribute to development outcomes. The team at Ashoka addresses some of the challenges we highlighted in the WeWork competition - check out how their challenges work. The folks over at mWater have a few ideas for how we might move beyond prizes, hackathons and contests and last year SSIR published an article on Rethinking Business Plan Competitions. Maybe we could dispense with all the mentoring, coaching, networking in competitions and just give away cash.



Community Members at the Forefront of Sustainable Coastal Communities

This blog post was previously published on the Counterpart International blog.

The Social Sector Accelerator works with and through organizations, companies and both local and national government in the Dominican Republic to build resilient coastal communities - improving their ability to weather increasing storm intensity and rising sea levels.

The Arrozero's of Monte Cristi, Agrofrontera and the Social Sector Accelerator team.

The Arrozero's of Monte Cristi, Agrofrontera and the Social Sector Accelerator team.


AgroFrontera, a local nonprofit in the Dominican Republic has organized fishermen into association groups that understand their role in environmental stewardship and are committed to fishing responsibly.

Watch the video here. 

With its motor cut off, the fishing boat rocks back and forth with the steel-blue waves of the Atlantic. Not far from the shores of the Dominican Republic’s Montecristi National Park, the water here is still slightly turbid. The bright limbs of the legging-clad fishermen are only visible for a moment after they pitch gracefully overboard in pursuit of a prey that until recently, most of them doggedly avoided.

Frederick Payton is the Executive Director of AgroFrontera, a nonprofit organization based in Montecristi which, in partnership with Counterpart International, works with communities to sustainably develop their food and farming systems.

His sun-filled job description might sound like a dream to other, suit-bound executives: Payton spends a lot of time with rice growers and fishermen in the lush paddies and beaches of a country that is recognized by most as a travel destination.

But the full scope of his work with AgroFrontera is no vacation. Payton and his staff are trying to turn around farming and fishing practices that have had grave environmental impacts on Montecristi, while simultaneously creating value chains that will improve people’s livelihoods enough to make conservation worth their efforts.

Striving to fish responsibly  

The invasive lionfish is the target of one such environmental and economic venture. Its vivid brown and white stripes and brilliantly dotted diaphanous fins are crowned with poisonous spindles that, until now, kept fishermen away.

That meant it had ample time to ravenously devour other juvenile fish species while reproducing prolifically. With no natural enemies in the Caribbean, lionfish pose a real threat to the survival of coral reefs and fisheries.

AgroFrontera recognized the dual benefit to fishermen and the ecosystem of catching more lionfish. And Payton knew any project that helped one but not the other would be unsustainable.

“Any program, any technology that you bring to these coastal communities with low-income fishermen and their families has to be based in an opportunity in a market,” he says.

The organization is working with restaurants, hotels and supermarkets in Montecristi to start selling the fish, which he says has a nice subtle flavor and is easy to fillet. It educates fishermen on maintaining a cold chain to make it more valuable as they take the beautiful carnivore from ocean to entrée.

And it has organized fishermen into associations—groups that understand their role in environmental stewardship and are committed to fishing responsibly.

Ariel Polanco is a fisherman and President of the Buen Hombre Association. Ariel and the other members of his group have joined to conserve and protect marine species. © Counterpart International.

Fishermen here have been over-fishing in the past. Around sixty percent of people in communities like Buen Hombre depend directly on fishing for a living, and destructive methods were used to maximize their catch, without concern for the overall health of the fisheries.

Some fishermen used water snares and gill nets that caught hundreds of young fish. They even poured poison in the mangroves and inland waterways, waiting for the dead fish to float up.

“We carried out a biological study two years ago in Manzanillo and the results were surprising,” says AgroFrontera employee Cesar Rafael Garcia. “No species were seen in the area.”

AgroFrontera taught the fisherman about more responsible methods, and worked with them to divide their fishing area into zones they could manage and protect. They provided equipment like fish aggregating devices that allow for line fishing of bigger, more valuable species like tuna and red snapper whose catch doesn’t damage the reef.

The Buen Hombre fishing association has twenty members, the one in Manzanillo, fifty.

“Our goal is, mainly, to protect and purchase equipment so that our members can fish with greater ease, and increase their catch, but they must always respect Mother Nature,” says Manzanillo association president Rogel Antonio Rivera Cabrera.

“After we started to fight against illegal fishing, the increase of fish species was remarkable,” Cabrera says. “I came here with my son, carrying a flashlight and—this is unbelievable, my friend—we caught around 100 pounds of fish. Their size was the right one for fishing.”

With results like this, even accounting for a bit of fisherman’s exaggeration, association members are optimistic that others in their community will get on board.

“I think they’re starting to see the economic benefit in… [fishing] in a more sustainable manner,” says Jesse McCarter, a Peace Corps volunteer who lives and works in Buen Hombre. “By providing a better catch for them and better means to catch high-quality fish, it’s helping them kind of create their own power within the community.”

AgroFrontera is educating farmers on concepts of water and pest management that reduce waste and chemicals.

Teaming up for lasting change

Creating community associations with the power to make positive changes for members and the environment was a tactic that worked just as well on land. Concerned with the whole watershed of Montecristi, Payton and his staff also work with the area farmers whose methods affect what ends up in the mangroves and bay.

They presented concepts of water and pest management that reduce waste and chemicals, and suggested alternatives to rinsing and disposing of pesticide containers in waterways. Farmers who work with AgroFrontera are using less than half the chemical products of those who are not affiliated with the program.

They also educated farmers about how to determine which type of fertilizer their soil needs, how much to apply and when. They also introduced a System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which allows farmers to use new varieties and spacing techniques that can result in a higher yield and better quality.

“For the past crop cycle, we have lowered production costs by 1,200 pesos per tarea (628 square meters),” says AgroFrontera agronomist Leoncio Pimentel. “Those 1,200 pesos per tarea correspond to direct savings for the farmer. This is the reason why they accept the methods of Agrofrontera.”

The economic gain is clear to farmers. But the environmental benefit of these new methods is becoming just as obvious. For the first time in years, residents in the communities near Montecristi are seeing the return of fish and crabs to lakes and streams that were once toxic.

“I was surprised on a plot of mine, as I was walking beside a pipe,” says rice farmer Ramón Antonio Román. “I saw the other day that some fish came out. I was amazed and I was surprised, because we didn’t use to see fish. Now the fish do come.”

Juan Alexander Rivas Rosario fishes for fun at Lake Utakata, a quiet, reedy lagoon that sits at the center of the micro-basin’s natural drainage systems.

Contamination had resulted in what Pimentel describes as the “total mortality” of its marine life despite the reliance of surrounding communities on the fish that used to populate it.

“We had stopped coming here for a while because there were no fish in the lakes due to contamination from products,” says Rivas. Now, things are different. “We can catch a lot of fish, compared to before.”

“We used to come here and leave with an empty bucket, without any fish. Now,” he says, holding out a bucket full of his fresh shiny catch, “you can see the results .”

Dusting off our HTML skills

I created my first website over 20 years ago.  I worked for a small organization, The Advocacy Project, helping human rights and advocacy organizations around the world make better use of information and information technology in their work. My first websites were based on HTML I would pirate from other sites by copying the source code and tweaking the layout for courageous activists working to end violence against women in war, ensure economic rewards for indigenous groups whose lands were rich with oil, secure rights for persons living with disabilities.

And now we are creating the first site for the Social Sector Accelerator, a start up launched in 2015, to rethink and redesign international development and support for civil society organizations. We are constantly reading, meeting new people and we will share what we are learning, thinking, designing and how we are helping individuals, organizations and networks to achieve their missions. We focus on their purpose and the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to secure that purpose and achieve impact.