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Takeaways from our Capacity Building Landscape Scan (Part 2 of 3)

2016-January 28
by Megan MacDavey, Program Officer

In my last post, I described for you the work we've been doing to better understand the capacity building landscape. Today, I want to reflect on the interviews that I conducted which populated this report, and share a few key takeaways with you. (If you are interested, you can read the full report here.)

I spent a lot of time trying to capture the essence of these conversations "in a nutshell." This was difficult as perhaps the biggest observation from the interviews is just the immense diversity of responses. So as you can imagine, I did not unearth a silver bullet. There is not one specific capacity building gap that everyone points to, and similarly, there is not one specific approach to address this gap. (That would be too easy.) In fact, the diversity of responses reflects the innate challenge in engaging with capacity building work as a funder, as well as some wonderful opportunities.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations found in a 2014 survey that 77 percent of staffed foundations support grantee capacity building in some way. However, capacity building does not typically take up a significant share of foundation dollars compared to other investments. In fact, according to the Foundation Center, the percentage of overall grantmaking dedicated to capacity building has gone down over the last ten years - from 6.6 percent in 2002, to 4.4 percent in 2012. These statistics underscore the importance of our continued investment in capacity building efforts.

I found the topic of nonprofit capacity to be top-of-mind for the funders and technical assistance providers who I spoke with. Across the counties in Massachusetts and New York where the Tower Foundation funds, three topics came up in almost every interview as the most critical areas of nonprofit (and, at times, funder) capacity:  leadership development, board development, and partnership opportunities.

Related to leadership development, I heard repeatedly about this excellent report from Third Sector New England which captures in great detail the crux of the leadership issue: the nonprofit sector as a whole is tremendously under-resourced, making it incredibly difficult to attract, retain and nurture strong leaders.  Many interviewees also described the heightened demands being placed on nonprofits to collect and report on outcomes in new and different ways. This shift is requiring different skillsets and expectations of leaders as well. Supporting the development of stronger leaders in a way that recognizes and builds on their existing strengths, in light of these sector-wide challenges, was identified by many as a key need.

Board development was also raised as an area of great opportunity to improve capacity. Currently, support for enhanced board operations and engagement are extremely limited, with one standalone example, the Institute for Trustees from the Essex County Community Foundation in Massachusetts. However, there are several efforts underway to grow the availability of these opportunities in both states.

Many also talked about the stiff competition that nonprofits face to secure funding, and the negative implication that has on both the willingness of nonprofits to partner, and the degree to which a partnership is successful. Several funders I spoke with expressed interest in brainstorming together about how we can better nurture and support partnerships that help us grow our impact, starting with collaborating more ourselves.

There were also some geographically unique issues raised. In Massachusetts, succession planning was a key point of discussion. There was also an emphasis on the lack of affordable housing on the Cape and Islands, which strains nonprofits' ability to attract and retain a high quality workforce - in addition to significantly impacting the clients they serve. In Western New York, the fact that there are a lot of strong capacity building resources in existence, but no coordination or strategy, came up repeatedly. The changes in the funding landscape facing nonprofits was also a big point of conversation in New York, and the tremendous need to provide increased support to nonprofits during this shift.

I'd love to hear from you on this topic!  Did any of these takeaways surprise you? Would you add anything to this list? Email me or leave a comment. Next time, I'll share a couple of great resources that I have been using to help the Foundation think about our work in this area. Stay tuned!

Photo by U.S. Department of Agriculture

Flickr:  20120515-OC-LSC-0533 / 7258139098
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed

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