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Preliminary Capacity Building Survey Findings

by Megan MacDavey, Program Officer
2016-December 12

For the past couple of years, we at The Tower Foundation have been doing a lot of thinking about capacity building. I'm here to remind you today that amidst all of the other exciting changes going on here (see Don's blog post from a few months back), capacity building is still very much on our radar.
Back in the spring I blogged about the Landscape Scan that we did to help understand the lay of the capacity building landscape in the communities we fund from the perspectives of funders and technical assistance providers (see here and here).  We got so much out of those interviews - challenges, opportunities and best practices. But we knew we were still missing a critical voice -- the nonprofit organizations themselves.
Many of you received an invitation to participate in a survey about capacity building back in the spring. My sincere thanks to all who participated (we had a fantastic 60% response rate).  Through this survey, we wanted to learn how Tower applicants and grantees view their organizational capacity, and the opportunities they see for strengthening it. Today I'm going to share with you some of the preliminary observations from that survey. In the future, we'll dive deeper into the data (with former stats lecturer, current Chief Program Officer, Don Matteson, as our guide).
Who participated?
In all, we had 117 surveys completed, representing organizations across all six of the counties we fund in Massachusetts and New York.  Organizations that responded provide a broad array of services, but especially focused on: children and youth, education, human services, behavioral health, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The questions in our survey largely focused on 14 organizational capacities*, including things like: leadership development, evaluation, and partnerships. For each of these capacities, we asked: (1) Do you do it? (2) Is it a major focus of your organization? (3) Is it a strength of your organization? (4) Is it important to the success of your organization? And, (5) Is it an urgent need for your organization?
Big Picture Takeaways
When we looked at the big picture (see the graph below) of responses across all capacity dimensions, we saw that the majority of survey respondents are doing these activities to some degree (89%). Similarly, 76% agree that these capacity building activities are a major focus of the organization.  And a whopping 95% of you said that capacity building activities are very important to your organization. However, a smaller proportion of respondents felt these activities are an organizational strength (66%), and even fewer felt they are urgent (64%). It came as no surprise to me that capacity building wasn't seen as more urgent - especially when we compare it to mission-critical things like, oh, you know, serving people.

So we all agree that capacity building is important. But what are the barriers to implementing this work? Program evaluation, for instance, we can agree is really important, but what makes it harder to actually implement, or pushes it further down the to-do list? We were not surprised to see that time and funding were cited most often as barriers to doing this work. Expertise, staff buy-in and technology followed as the third, fourth, and fifth most common barriers.
Most & Least Preferred Activities

We asked respondents to identify the kinds of capacity building activities that they most and least prefer. While it was clear that everyone learns differently (there was preference for and against every type of activity), face-to-face activities were more strongly preferred over more passive experiences, like online learning and conference calls.

While we have a lot more we would like to learn about the capacity building needs of our partners, we are really energized with the information gleaned from this survey. It underscores the interest in, and need for, support for organizational capacity. We are looking forward to continuing the conversation over the coming year and sharing with you the evolution in our thinking as we go.

*The 14 capacity dimensions included in the survey were: advocacy and public policy, board/governance development, communications and marketing, financial management, fundraising, human resources management, leadership development, partnerships and collaborations, outcomes-based financing, program and service evaluation, continuous quality improvement, staff development, strategic awareness, and data literacy/fluency.

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