Capacity Building: The Key To Sustainable Movements

This post originally appeared on Forbes

by Michele Lord.

Historically, when looking for ways to maintain a program or an organization, philanthropy tends to focus exclusively on funding programmatic work. As we all know, this is essential to a well-functioning organization. However, if what the philanthropy community is really after — and we should be — is creating sustainable movements, we must broaden our scope. Moving an organization beyond surviving to thriving takes an extra step and an investment in capacity building.

When I began having conversations about capacity building with folks years ago, one of the first things they would say is that capacity building is a good way to prevent burnout, but it was on the back burner — an “extra” or “added bonus.” What I explained then was capacity building goes far beyond keeping folks from the brink of exhaustion. It’s not an “extra,” it’s an imperative.

Why Capacity Building?

Capacity building takes the focus of an organization’s success beyond how they can be successful today and carries it into the future. Investments in capacity building give organizations the space to learn, grow and fulfill their mission over time. When we make investments in capacity building, we are opening ourselves up to the big picture. We are seeing beyond the immediate needs of an organization or field and investing in an organization’s health and longevity.

Capacity building comes in many forms, including support around fundraising and development, organizational sustainability, financial management, leadership transition and development, strategic communications, legal services and much more. Receiving this kind of support is what allows promising new ideas for social change to grow into a movement.

How Do I Know It Can Work?

We know supporting organizations at this level works because we have done it. Over the course of 10 years, my organization has awarded 90 U.S. organizations more than 200 capacity building grants — an investment of nearly $12 million. In particular, our fund focused on advancing immigrant rights has used capacity building to strengthen grantees and the field.

Between 2011 and 2016, the average median revenue of our immigrant-rights grantees grew annually by 8%. What’s more, the number of individual donors grew by 17%, pointing to the diversification of funding revenue and the emphasis on building a wider base. Additionally, the cash reserves of the grantees increased to six months on average, helping groups better navigate revenue cycles.

This is just one example of how capacity building can support organizations working to tackle some of the most controversial and entrenched issues of our time. By investing in the capacity of organizations, we can eradicate the fear that an organization won’t make it beyond year five and we can actualize a shift in the philanthropic space.

Here are just a few ways to create a strong organizational capacity:

Invest in leadership.

Investing in strong leaders is investing in strong organizations. Moreover, when funders make investments in leadership a priority, it opens the conversation about who these leaders are. Are we investing in leaders who represent the population they wish to serve? Are we empowering the next generation to use their voices? All of these considerations matter.

Commit to the long game.

It is important to remember that capacity building isn’t a one-and-done investment. Capacity building, just like any other kind of funding, must be revisited over time. Perhaps in their first five years, an organization needed guidance regarding leadership development. At year five, their needs for long-term success have probably changed and evolved. By committing to the long game, you can ensure that you’re providing organizations what they need when they need it.

Don’t overlook the ‘small’ stuff.

Investing in the administrative skills required to run organizations, such as financial management, project management and human resources support, may seem like an afterthought, but it’s those kinds of skills that allow organizations to rise to the next level. They shape narratives, hone fundraising skills and diversify revenue investments.

Investing in organizational capacity translates into building entire fields and creates lasting movements. To create the movements we all want to see, we must view capacity building as a continuous and necessary tool in the long-term strategy.


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