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Re-Thinking Capacity Building (Part 1 of 3)

2016-January 12
by Megan MacDavey, Program Officer

I have spent a lot of time over the last few months working on understanding the capacity building landscape in the Massachusetts and New York counties that we fund. The Tower Foundation has a long history of supporting capacity building projects (the ones you might know the most typically get funded through our Technology Planning and Implementation grants and our Small Grants Program in our Strengthening Partners portfolio), and in this new year we will be exploring how we can be even more intentional about supporting organization's capacity. To do this - we are equipping ourselves with some data.

First, I've interviewed about thirty folks who fund capacity building projects or provide technical assistance to nonprofits to gauge how they view the current landscape: What resources are out there for nonprofits to engage in? How strong are they? What are the gaps? Where are the opportunities to do more? Next, we want to capture the voice of the partners we fund who are on the ground doing the work. From their perspective, we want to know what are the highest priorities for them to strengthen their organization? And what are the barriers to engaging in this kind of work? Actually, we are sending out email invitations in the next month to current and past applicants to respond to a survey about this. (Check your inboxes! We'd love your input!)

When I began this research, I spent a lot of time exploring definitions of capacity building, because it was apparent to me that everyone looks at capacity building differently. When I think of "capacity building," I think about tools that help strengthen organizational infrastructure and position them for long-term success. But what I realized in exploring definitions for this work is that the words that we use to define it are less important than just cutting through the jargon and saying what we mean. Because "capacity building" is so broad, it's easy to get confused, or for the meaning to feel watered-down. There are the "types" of capacity building that you typically hear about - like board development, leadership development, and organizational development. And then there are "strategies" that we often use to build capacity - like hiring a consultant and getting technical assistance, participating in events or networks to share lessons learned, or participating in a training or workshop.

I commit to you to try to be clear about our work in this area! So here is my intention for this capacity building project, jargon - hopefully - removed:   I am gathering information to help the Foundation make informed decisions about how to support our partners, doing really important work, in possibly new or creative ways. I will keep you posted as we move further down this path! Stay tuned for more...

So what do you think is the biggest area of need in order for your organization to be stronger, happier, more effective, or more sustainable? I'd love to hear from you! Write a comment below or drop me an email

Photo by Sascha Kohlmann
Flickr: Gardening Tools / 15127455163
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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