“My job is to help you succeed” – Taking Stock of the Anti-Trafficking Fund’s Capacity-Building Program.

By Sienna Baskin, Director, Anti-Trafficking Fund, NEO Philanthropy

Since 2016, I have had the honor of funding some of the most thoughtful and steadfast leaders working to end human trafficking in the United States. These social workers, litigators, organizers, networks, survivors and activists are anchoring the human rights response to human trafficking. Having been one of these advocates myself for more than a decade, I know their passion and conviction well. I also know that it takes much more to run sustainable, healthy organizations for the long term. I know the truth that most leaders have little support or training in the plethora of skills they need to do their jobs well, and feel in over their heads much of the time. Add the components of institutional racism, hostile political environments, working with traumatized people, and the constant pressure of fundraising, and you have a recipe for the burn out we see so often in our movements. Having been so recently in their shoes, I wanted to invest in not only their work but in their sustainability and thriving, knowing that would strengthen the field as a whole.

With the support of our funders, I created a capacity building program for the grantees of the Anti-Trafficking Fund (ATF), a collaborative fund housed at NEO Philanthropy. At the beginning of each grant, I “onboard” the new grantee into the fund by talking to them about their needs and areas they would like to grow. I let them know that now that they are a grantee, my job is to help them succeed. For our ongoing grantees, I refresh this information in our check-in calls to hear how they were responding to the opportunities I offered and how needs were changing. This feedback loop helped me evolve the program from providing mostly cohort-wide trainings to offering an annual “menu” of opportunities for individual grantees to select, along with annual convenings and peer webinars. Our program came to include a wide range of topics: advocacy, assessment, fundraising, communications, data security, anti-racism, finance, leadership, management, organizing, human resources, network building, self-care and mindfulness. It also offered these opportunities in a range of modalities: in person group trainings, individual coaching, consultants, volunteer matching services, and small grants.

In early 2021, we decided to do a deeper evaluation of our capacity building program, to take a step back and find out what was helpful, what wasn’t, and why. As we have decided to close the ATF in December, we want to make our findings available and accessible to likeminded field-builders in philanthropy. We found there is deep value in capacity-building, if it’s done right and with humility.

ATF Grantee Damayans Riya Ortiz At National Domestic Worker Alliance General Assembly
Riya Ortiz of Damayan, an ATF grantee, at National Domestic Workers Alliance strategy meeting.

Evaluation method

Knowing that our capacity building program is a minor part of our grantees’ lives, we knew we needed to help trigger their memories for this five year look-back. To help our grantees recall, we prepared an inventory for each grantee; a list of every engagement they had with the capacity building program. I shared that, then asked each organization to respond to survey questions related to their experience. The data were gathered through Survey Monkey with both open response and scaled questions.

Findings & Recommendations

1. Offer variety in topic and modality, especially with a diverse portfolio.

When asked what was the most helpful experience we offered, grantees mentioned almost every single one. While some offerings were especially popular, there was no one modality, topic or specific training or consultant that worked for everyone, but almost everything worked for someone. Diversity in modality is especially important – every person has a different learning style and organizations absorb new information in different ways.

Some loved “bootcamp” style trainings and were immediately able to apply new tools and templates gained, while others found the same trainings overwhelming, saying “It was a massive overload. I was swimming in so many materials I had no idea how to use any of it.” Some found coaching too vague and hard to measure, while others found open-ended advice and support coaches give invaluable. Some organizations preferred to choose their own consultants to further their goals and receive a small grant to cover the costs, while others said were relieved to have us offer coaches, trainings and consultants they might not have prioritized or found otherwise. For one grantee, a happy medium would be “a list of vetted people you recommend to jump start the process. Finding a consultant is very time consuming.” For some, volunteer matching services were a god-send, because it allowed them to cross multiple projects off their to-do list at once without doing it all themselves. “We used it to find volunteers to design public-facing documents and conduct a strategic planning survey, and plan to use it in the future to redesign our website.”

As my grantees went through these different experiences, they learned and taught me what worked and what didn’t for them, which helped me make better recommendations in the future, and helped them make better selections. With more time to experiment, we might have gotten outside the box of consultants, trainings and coaches and, in partnership with our grantees, thought of new ways to enrich their learning and support.

2. Listen to grantees and keep a finger on the pulse

We asked grantees why they found particular experiences helpful and the most popular reason was “The skills or knowledge offered were what we needed.” It is tempting for funders to build a program based on their own impressions of what the field needs, but asking and listening to grantees describe what they needed, and then delivering that, resulted in the experiences that grantees said most improved their practices and skills.

But this assessment must also be a dialogue: if there is a trusting relationship, funders can also share their insights and suggestions. Funders can also help grantees respond to new needs that emerge from current events in a timely way. In the recent past, we raised additional funds and were able to offer legal advice on applying for the PPP loan, as well as a cohort-wide anti-racism training. We trusted grantees to know when these opportunities would fit well within their plans to address these issues. As one grantee said “This training provided the entire staff a safe space to learn more about this issue, tools to use within the organization, and resources as we continue this journey.”

“Providing an opportunity for the grantees to share what they believe are priorities for the organization, and providing feedback on what the funders believe to be priority…allows the organization to share their insights but also hear from others what they may not be aware of.”

ATF Grantee

3. Consider “right size” and cultural fit in suggesting opportunities

Grantees highlighted tailoring as the most important principle in offering capacity building. Grantees benefitted more when the experience was “right sized” and a good cultural fit for their organization. The most common barrier mentioned by grantees to their fully benefitting from capacity-building was lack of internal capacity. Right sizing is incredibly important for small or overtaxed organizations or leaders. Even our well-resourced organizations, capacity building can feel like a “nice to have” not a “must have” and it can be hard to prioritize. Funders can make it easier by scaling expectations down in terms of time and energy required. Grantees can benefit greatly from short and optional one-offs, especially in areas they may not have sought out on their own.

“We kept detailed notes and will use them as a protocol for crisis communications if/when needed down the road. If not for NEO offering this training, we probably would never have sought out these tools proactively on our own. I feel better having the tools saved in case we need them, though of course hopefully we won’t.”

ATF Grantee

A large network sent several members to one of our more time-intensive offerings, with mixed results. “Several organizations never completed the course because of competing commitments. And for some groups, it was challenging to try to learn new tools that their organizations don’t actually have access to because they have small budgets. A big lesson learned for us with this course was the need to do more screening with organizations before suggesting this to make sure they actually have the time and capacity to really benefit from it.”

Culture is aspect of “fit” that requires deep knowledge of the grantee and the opportunity. Will this coach understand and relate to the mission of the organization, speak their language, and be able to adjust to their norms? This is especially important when considering race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality differences between the coach/trainer/consultant and the organization’s leadership or staff.

4. Make it possible for grantees to invest in continuity

Many of the opportunities required grantees to choose one staff member to participate because the topic concerned their role. If that staff member is not well-integrated into the organization or leaves, the organization as a whole may not benefit from the investment. One grantee suggested we encourage and resource at least two staff members to participate in every opportunity to enable continuity.

5. Offer peer and cohort experiences

Nearly all of our grantees cited the cohort experience and peer connections as an essential and invaluable contribution to their growth. We brought grantees together for weekend long convenings before the pandemic, which included informal and formal networking time. Grantees found these in-person gatherings especially rich, but we also convened them for trainings and peer support calls over Zoom. The opportunity to think and strategize with other grantees made these some of the highest rated experiences. One grantee mentioned that our bringing them on as a grantee and articulating to the cohort why they fit within our strategy was a key moment in their evolution.

Grantees wished they had even more opportunities to connect with the cohort, and suggested we could use the cohort to debrief trainings that happened outside the cohort, or offer trainings grouped by size/age of organization as mini-cohort experiences. An approach we began to experiment with was to offer short cohort-wide trainings as “teasers” with trainers who were available to work more extensively or one-on-one with grantees if they were interested. Using the cohort space to book-end these deeper capacity building experiences would be a worthy experiment.

“Being part of a special and unique cohort of like-minded human rights organizations was encouraging in dark times and added to our skill sets as well as our ability to stay connected to other areas of the movement.”

ATF Grantee

6. Define Capacity-Building Broadly

Grantees recognized many ways of building capacity other than what we described as the Capacity Building program. In addition to what we listed in our inventories, grantees pointed to our leveraging of additional funds from other funders, connecting grantees with each other around specific topics, “sounding board” calls with NEO staff, our separate Communications Initiative and the funder briefings we hosted to introduce grantees to other funders. One grantee pointed out that our efforts to flag and share relevant and reputable free trainings led to some of the best experiences they had with capacity-building. The additional time and energy a grant-maker puts into these efforts is well spent if the goal is to help grantees grow and succeed.

“The thought partnership was very valuable in brainstorming our program focuses of policy work, direct services and survivor leadership. As a former advocate on the ground, Sienna was keenly aware of various obstacles and challenges, and could help us strategize appropriately.”

ATF Grantee

Outside of NEO, grantees cited other factors that increased their capacity. These included: new sources of funding which allowed them to hire for new roles, setting up new internal systems, their own investments in staff development, visits and exchanges with other organizations which inspired new strategies, and media moments around their issues which brought in new interest and funding. A more thorough evaluation than this would measure the impact of all of our interactions and support for the grantees, within the matrix of other external and internal factors affecting the organization.


We started this journey with a firm belief that grantmaking is most successful when it is paired with empathy and a clear “we’re on your side” message to grantees. We know that these leaders are doing hard and often thankless work, and don’t often feel the permission to invest in themselves or their staff. When asked what are the most important principles for grant-makers to use in capacity-building, one grantee said, “accessibility and self-determination.” This evaluation confirms that capacity building is worth doing if its done with those principles in mind, and with flexibility, creativity and humility. At the end of our survey, we asked what kinds of capacity-building grantees will look for in the future. The extensive list below showcases both the ongoing need, and the evolved literacy and comfort of these organizations with the idea of capacity building. For many grantees this was their first experience with a funder offering this kind of support. Now they can now readily name their needs, both around different topics and the best way for them to receive new information and skills. There is a sense of planning and foresight – being able to see around the corner to the next stage of their organization’s life cycle and what they will need to have in place. Perhaps this is the most important capacity they have developed.

If we were to continue capacity-building with these grantees, we would use this survey data and refresh the program, keeping what works and building more creative and deeper partnerships with grantees around their success. We might work with them collectively to develop the program and theory of change. We might become more transparent ourselves, sharing with our grantees where we are investing in our own practices and what we are learning at NEO Philanthropy. We might decide together what capacities are most important to develop: in addition to management skills and fundraising acumen, perhaps it’s more amorphous but equally important qualities like adaptiveness, pragmatism, transparency, hope. We would increase the diversity of our consultant and trainer pool in every way to build the ecosystem of helpers and confidants. Together, we would create an evolving and adaptive support structure for these organizations, so they know they are not alone, and that we are invested in their success and in them as people. We hope others in philanthropy will continue to investigate this practice in our stead.

“it is vitally important- so please continue to provide it! Keep on listening to the grantees on how best to collaborate in that space. THANK YOU for recognizing the key importance of our institutional strength to deepen our collective impact.”

ATF Grantee

Popular offerings from our Program:

What capacity-building opportunities grantees will look for in the future:

  • Leadership succession coaching
  • Strategic planning
  • Fundraising and marketing development
  • Communications
  • Consultants that help us to complete specific projects and gain ongoing skills
  • Capacity building opportunities that can be passed onto local affiliates
  • Peer learning
  • how to conduct an organizational self-assessment
  • succession planning
  • professional development for board members
  • developing new sources of income
  • Mediation
  • Negotiation
  • talking to hard white supremacists about anti-racism
  • Deepening engagements with ongoing consultants.
  • Webinars on different topics that are engaging and also just listening.
  • In person convenings
  • Resourcing/financing fellowships, interns and actual staffing capacity.
  • Mini-grants dedicated to trainings selected by the organization rather than pre-determined by a funder.
  • financial management
  • Management trainings for new and experienced supervisors
  • mindfulness and mental health related workshops for staff
  • Coalition management


Resources like Ford Foundation’s BUILD program, this open-source organizational mapping tool, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and our colleagues at the Four Freedoms Fund guided our initial thinking. Four Freedoms Fund’s Julian Ross and GEO’s Capacity Building Champions group gave feedback to strengthen our survey. I am indebted to Kimberly VanWagner, Margie Fine and Robert Bray for their thought partnership along the way, as well as to all my grantees, who taught me so much.

Sienna Baskin


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