Crafting Capacity-Building Support that Counts

Joi Ridley

When grantmakers consider providing capacity-building support for the first time or refining their existing capacity-building support, it can be challenging to figure out where to begin. What kind of questions should we ask? Where should we focus? What is the best way to provide support?

Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives highlights that grantmakers can work to better understand the needs of nonprofits, as well as partner with the organizations they fund to ensure that their capacity-building support meets those organizations’ true needs. GEO’s publication, Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity, explores the ways that grantmakers can do just that. By supporting organizations to strengthen their leadership and improve the ability of their staff and board members to perform at their best, philanthropy can help ensure that nonprofits have what they need to deliver on their missions over the long haul.

Healthcare Georgia Foundation is a helpful case study on what it looks like to evaluate capacity-building support and make changes to better meet the needs of nonprofits. Since its inception, the foundation has worked to strengthen nonprofit health organizations by providing general operating support and by implementing grant programs specifically focused on capacity building. In 2012 and 2014, the foundation commissioned evaluations of two of its capacity-building programs, which informed the foundation’s launch of its EmpowerHealth grant program in 2016. The goal of this program is to provide the funding and technical assistance necessary to help nonprofits increase specific capabilities to deliver stronger programs, take risks, build connections, innovate, and iterate.

Just as there is a range of capacities that contribute to organizational effectiveness, there is a range of ways grantmakers can support capacity building. Healthcare Georgia Foundation wanted to ensure that it provided comprehensive capacity-building support, so EmpowerHealth offers support at several different levels. In addition to providing organizational capacity-building grants and technical assistance to nonprofits, the foundation also developed a resource toolkit to help nonprofits identify capacity-building consultants. The foundation focuses on building the collective capacities of nonprofits by providing peer learning opportunities for grantees who are part of the program as well. Nonprofits are encouraged to bring members of their boards to these workshops so that capacity is built across the entire organization.

To better understand the needs of nonprofits, EmpowerHealth uses the TCC Group’s Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT) with nonprofits. In addition to focusing on overall organizational effectiveness, the tool also evaluates four core capacities: adaptive, leadership, management, and technical capacity. The tool also helps nonprofits understand their organizational culture and their current place within the nonprofit lifecycle.

Healthcare Georgia Foundation uses the CCAT with all nonprofits that submit a letter of intent, and even those organizations that are not selected to receive a grant can gain valuable insight from completing the CCAT. The foundation provides webinars on interpreting CCAT results and conducts individual coaching calls with all applicants. This serves the entire nonprofit community in Georgia, as the tool helps all organizations that apply for a grant better understand and articulate their needs, both internally and with other potential funders.

For those applicants that do receive a grant, Healthcare Georgia Foundation provides funding for a wide array of capacities, including board and staff development, evaluation/data tracking and reporting, fundraising plan development, marketing and communications, staff assessment and review policies, strategic planning, succession planning, and technology skill development. Much of the success of this program requires strong relationships with grantees, which allows them to feel comfortable approaching the foundation if they need to make adjustments.  Program officers have to be willing to listen and be transparent in order to build these relationships.

GEO advocates for the “three C’s of capacity-building support”: make it contextual, make it continuous, and make it collective. The EmpowerHealth program meets these standards of a strong capacity-building program:

  • Contextual: By using the CCAT tool to help assess nonprofit needs, EmpowerHealth is able to tailor their support to each nonprofit.
  • Continuous: The program provides continuous support throughout the cohort program, reinforcing that the foundation is willing to be a long-term partner.
  • Collective: By structuring peer learning and resources for all participants and encouraging staff and board to attend together, EmpowerHealth provides collective support.

In addition to its EmpowerHealth program, the foundation also builds capacity among its applicants and grantees through direct charitable activities such as its Evaluation Resource Center, to build evaluative capacity; HealthTecdl, its distance learning program; and its biennial Connections conference, to promote networking and build a learning community among its grantees.

If you are interested in thinking further about how your foundation provides capacity-building support, here are some questions that you can reflect on with your colleagues:

  • How can we connect capacity building and our grantmaking strategy?
  • In our region or issue area, what is the landscape of nonprofit capacity need? What are other funders already providing?
  • What do we need to know and be able to do to provide continuous, contextual, and collective capacity building?
  • How do we make sure that we have built the necessary trust for effective capacity building?
  • What are our options for structuring capacity-building support?
  • How can we understand nonprofit “readiness” to participate in capacity-building support?
  • How do we learn from and continually improve our capacity-building support?

Capacity-building support is critical to nonprofit success — and providing the right support is even more important. By working closely with nonprofits to understand their needs and providing contextual, continuous, and collective support, grantmakers can be trusted partners that help nonprofits thrive. 

Joi Ridley is director of communications at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO). Follow GEO on Twitter at @GEOfunders.

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