Do Capacity Building Programs Help Nonprofits Achieve Better Results?

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.

This post originally appeared on Beth Kanter's site, and was written by the Accelerator's Executive Director, Teresa Crawford