Capacity Building: Thoughts from the Road
(Previously published in the Fall 2010 Edition of OGF CONNECTION, a publication of the Ohio Grantmakers Forum, and reprinted with permission.)
It is site visit season at The William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation and my colleagues and I are on the road most days working with potential grantees to understand their capacity building requests for the final grantmaking cycle this year. In between these meetings I often find myself in a quiet place working on email or some other task that can be done on my laptop. Recently, in one of these in-between moments I reflected on what it takes to build an effective capacity grants program: clearly defining the grant guidelines; carefully communicating your message about them, and being committed to evaluating their outcomes.
Capacity building is one of those elusive ideas in philanthropy that fits the adage “I’m not sure what it is, but I will know it when I see it.” For foundations that offer grantmaking programs to accomplish capacity building, the “it” can often confuse grantees, trustees, and program staff when not well planned and articulated. Careful design and implementation, however, can make these grants some of the most effective in a foundation’s portfolio. The trick for the foundation is to take care of its “it.”
Our foundation has been making capacity building grants for a number of years, and we have reached the point where we are comfortable with our “it.” We have a clear definition of what we mean; a collection of lessons learned through our grants, and we know the types of capacity that our one-year, relatively small grants can help build. Getting to this point took time, a commitment to a great deal of dialogue with grantees, and a process for the evaluation of our grants.
Defining “It” — What Does Your Foundation Mean by Capacity Building?
The single most important question that a foundation must answer when considering a capacity building grants program is “What do we mean by capacity building?” This question must be answered clearly in the minds of the board and staff so that they can construct an effective way to communicate it to the community where they work. Without a clear, understandable, and consistent definition of capacity building, grantees will be confused and foundation staff will have little guidance to offer them to construct an appropriate request. Once this question has been answered, it must be communicated internally and externally.
Letting Them Know You Are in the Capacity Building Business.
If definitions of capacity building are confusing to foundations, they are confounding to our grantees, who must work hard to figure out what each funder is looking for in a request. Foundations who decide to make these grants should take great care in crafting their message. Definitions should be stated in clear terms and made available on websites, in funding guidelines, and other media that are used to communicate with grantees. Undoubtedly, definitions and parameters for these grants will change with time. It is important, however, that they remain stable for a period, ideally at least a year. Nothing is more frustrating for all concerned than changing the rules in the middle of the game. If changes are made, they should be carefully planned and ample notice given to the community so they can take the new definition into account when planning their foundation asks.
Doing More of the Same: One Type of Capacity Building.
Grantees often need help to expand existing programs. Take for example, a community center that serves 50 children in an after-school program, and is planning a second site in a nearby neighborhood so they can serve 150 kids. It needs more real estate, more staff, more outreach, more supplies, and all the things required to expand an existing program. A request to help them do this is essentially a request for operating support to build capacity to do more of the same. Often foundations make this sort of grant and never think of it as capacity building, but clearly it can build volume capacity. It is essential when considering such a request to be sure this increase in volume can truly be managed by the grantee.
Building Internal Infrastructure: A Second Type of Capacity Building.
This second type of capacity building supports strengthening the internal systems and processes that allow an organization to carry out its mission and vision. Grants with this focus support strategic planning work, board and executive development, enhanced IT capabilities, improved fundraising, expanded communications, and other activities to make the organization more effective. Typically the requests for this type of capacity building are for episodic projects such as support for the development of a five-year strategic plan or help to craft a succession plan in anticipation of the retirement of a long-time executive director. They often involve the participation of both staff and board, and they often affect the future direction of an organization. When reviewing an infrastructure request, program staff must be sure to determine that the organization is indeed ready for the particular type of infrastructure development it proposes to undertake.
Is Any Capacity Really Being Built?
Strong capacity building grants can be hard to make because many proposed ideas sound so promising. It is vitally important that foundations develop a process that identifies expected outcomes at the beginning of the grant, and then evaluates progress toward them at the end. Right now you are saying to yourself “duh-no kidding,” but this can be the hardest part of conducting an effective capacity building grant program. A final report that provides staff and board members with detailed information to compare proposed outcomes with actual accomplishments will help the foundation identify grant approaches that are successful from those that simply don’t work. In turn, when these lessons are shared with grantees, they benefit and do not lose time and resources heading down disappointing paths in future requests.
One Last Thought.
Not all capacity building grants require large amounts over multiple years. Modest amounts to support a planning process, add back-office capacity or build a better website can pay large dividends for an organization and make a real difference to its mission and those they serve. Never underestimate the power of a small capacity building grant well-made.
Leah S. Gary is the president and CEO of The William J. and Dorothy K. O’Neill Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio. The foundation allocated two-thirds of its annual grants budget – about $2 million – to capacity building grants this year. Learn more about the foundation on its website, www.oneillfdn.org.
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