STATEMENT OF COMMUNITY NEED: WHAT’S THE REAL PROBLEM ?
TRADITIONAL FEE-FOR-SERVICE MODELS CANNOT ADEQUATELY ADDRESS THE NEEDS OF EMERGING NPOs
- No budget available for professional services
- No budget available for staff development
- Lack of required project management interfaces
- Too many urgent needs for program delivery resources
- Even the larger NPOs often try to wait for volunteer resources or grants
- Capacity building always takes a back seat
ALSO, WE FIND THAT MANY SKILLS-BASED VOLUNTEERING MODELS OFTEN FALL SHORT
- Volunteer service providers that do not adequately understand the nonprofit model
- Addressing symptoms versus root causes
- Engagements run as silos without integration
- Lack of quality control; lack of accountability
- Lack of sustainability; no follow-up
- Agency is left stranded
WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT FOR ORGANIZATIONS TO MOVE FORWARD WITH CAPACITY BUILDING INITIATIVES ?
Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps, has succinctly outlined the overall problem with respect to the general level of NPO participation in capacity building initiatives:
- Lack of staffing for capacity building: You can send nonprofits to a million workshops and send a dozen consultants to them, but if they don’t have staffing to implement anything, it most likely won’t work. Strategic plans, for example, are often a running joke in our sector, tending to gather dust. And this is for organizations that are well-staffed. For smaller organizations with no, or part-time, or mainly-volunteer staffing, it is often impossible to implement these plans.
- Not enough time or energy for capacity building: Let’s face it, many leaders do not enter this field to focus their time on building organization infrastructure, as important as it is. The organization is a means to achieve programmatic goals. They know it’s important, but when there is limited time, leaders will choose helping a community member in need over poring through financial statements or HR policies. And who can blame them?
- Good capacity building is expensive: It always amazes me how we expect small nonprofits to handle complex things such as program evaluation while giving them tiny amounts in resources. It’s like giving someone a third of a fishing pole and asking them to go catch some fish. Good evaluation, like good financial management or fundraising, etc., take a lot of money to do well.
- Good capacity building is specialized: Capacity building activities are expensive because they are often extremely complex. To do well, they often have to be done by organizations and people that that specialize in them. Expecting small nonprofits, which may not have any experience in these areas, and who have no staff, to pull them off effectively is usually unrealistic.
HOW CAN WE SOLVE THESE PROBLEMS ?
Change the way we view nonprofits: There is an unconscious perception that nonprofits are like the low-income people we serve, as I wrote in Let’s stop treating nonprofits the way we treat poor people. That’s why we insist organizations also learn to fish, so they can be “sustainable.” (As one of my colleagues, a funder, says, “Sustainability is not a thing.”) Nonprofits are not low-income clients; we are partners doing critical work. So let’s stop it with this whole teaching-nonprofits-to-fish in areas of evaluation, HR, IT, communications, etc. If they are interested in it, great; if not, let’s figure out how to get them those things so they can focus on doing the stuff they are good at and that we need them to do.
Fund organizations to hire people to do stuff. A colleague of mine was asked by a funder, “You do amazing work. How can we help you build your financial management capacity?” Her response? “Just give me some money so I can hire or outsource out to a finance company to do my bookkeeping and financial reports!” Honestly, so many of the leaders, especially leaders from marginalized communities, are sick of getting everything except money to just hire skilled people to do stuff. Not to teach them to do stuff, but to actually DO the stuff that they need done!
Fund outsourced activities. Most small orgs cannot afford to hire their own full-time CFO or HR director, nor would they have enough work for a full-time person. Outsourcing may be the way to go. But because of the teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy, many nonprofits are not allowed to do that. We’d rather fund them to attend a grant writing workshop, for example, rather than just allowing them to pay for a freelance grant writer to take lead in writing grant proposals. As I mentioned, so many things we expect nonprofits to be able to do well are complex—HR practices, evaluation, financial management, etc. There are organizations that do these things way more effectively and efficiently because they specialize in these areas. Allow nonprofits to use their funding to outsource.
Fund leadership pipeline programs. Yeah, I am totally biased because this is what my organization does. But we need to stop complaining about the lack of leaders of color in the field, an essential element of capacity building work for many communities, and start funding leadership pipeline programs. Even if you don’t agree with my assertion that not everyone needs to learn to fish, you can’t deny that you can’t teach someone to fish when there’s no one there on the pier to be taught.
Provide multi-year general operating funds. So many capacity building practices perpetuate what I call the Capacity Trap. This is when the funds you give a nonprofit actually hurts them because it forces them to spend their limited time and energy on things that will not further their organization’s development. As an example, a colleague of mine had received a 12K capacity building grant. None of the money could be used to pay his wages as the ED, or for the org’s rent or utilities, things that his org desperately needed. The 12K would all go to consultants and facilitators for retreats. He had been struggling with finding funding to pay his own wages and was thinking of quitting the work. The 12K, if it had been allowed to be used to pay for my friend to remain in his position, or even to pay for rent so he didn’t have to freak out about it, would much more likely allow the organization to build its capacity. The restrictions put on by so many capacity building grants actually prevent capacity from being built.
Invest in intermediaries who can provide operations support. Figuring out who to outsource to and other capacity building strategies can be daunting, especially to organizations led by marginalized communities. Intermediaries who can navigate these relationships, or who may just be one-stop shops for capacity-building services, may be extremely helpful. Some intermediaries serve as fiscal sponsors, allowing for nonprofits to focus on delivering services instead of spending endless frustrating hours in legal compliance and financial management.
Invest in intermediaries who can aggregate and distribute funding. This year, my organization has been teaching our fellows to write grant proposals. Some of them pick it up really quickly. But the reality is that it still takes organizations a lot of time to learn to do it, and then to actually do it. If some intermediaries who have relationships with funders can just aggregate funding and then distribute out to smaller nonprofits, it may save everyone time. Foundations can manage one large grant, versus 20 or 30 smaller grants, and the smaller nonprofits don’t have to spend so much time struggling with grants, which are often inequitable. Of course, we have to be careful that the majority of the funding reaches the smaller organizations and is not hoarded by the intermediaries (see this post on Trickle-Down Community Engagement).
Source: Vu Le, Executive Director of Rainier Valley Corps