Capacity building

Investing in building the capacity of community groups offers a host of benefits, including stronger applications, stronger programs and stronger relationships. But capacity building does command resources, not least of which is staff time. You need to weigh the costs against the benefits.

What is capacity building?

Capacity building refers to improving a community group's ability to operate. There is any number of areas in which you might help a group increase its capacity. The areas in which not-for-profit groups most commonly need help are:

  • governance and boards
  • technology/website planning and support
  • database/client relationship marketing system (CRM) establishment and management
  • branding and marketing strategy
  • media relations and publicity
  • sponsorship seeking
  • human resource management
  • competitive grant writing
  • research
  • quantification

Other areas where groups may need help include fundraising, evaluation, general management advice, strategic planning, financial planning/accounting, development of performance measures, and staff/management training.

You can provide as much or as little assistance as you like, in any given subject area. And you can provide assistance that contributes to the achievement of your program's goals. If you can't integrate the assistance into your broader strategy, it may not be worth providing.

What are the benefits?

The pay-offs for investing in capacity building include:

  • receiving stronger grant applications
  • forming stronger relationships with the community
  • having grants managed more effectively
  • having better-functioning community groups managing your grants
  • assurance that solid methodology underpins the programs you fund
  • strengthening the networks that society relies upon to respond to complex problems, by strengthening the groups that form the links within them - the network is only as strong as its weakest link
  • making groups more self-reliant by helping them to secure other funding/resources
  • gaining an understanding of broader issues from conversations with unsuccessful applicants
  • improving the overall perception of your organisation.

What are the drawbacks?

  • Providing intensive support can be costly and may reduce your capacity for giving grants.
  • Providing assistance has the potential to make grantees even more dependent upon the grantmaker - you need to ensure that you are enabling them, providing the so-called hand-up rather than hand-out.

How do we make it work?

  • Don't make the mistake of imposing your "expert" opinion on community groups. Work with them to find out what they need, and then assess whether you have skills or resources to contribute.
  • Remember that different people have different styles of learning. What one person learns by doing or experimenting another learns by talking or thinking.
  • Capacity building can take time. It can be helpful to frame it as a process that takes place in stages - this can make it seem more manageable.
  • Be aware that you might need to make a conscious effort to assess the impact of the additional assistance you provide. Research shows you are less likely to subject your non-grantmaking activities to evaluation than your grantmaking activities.

Low-hanging fruit

These capacity-building ideas are easily within reach of many grantmakers:

  • Proactively provide feedback to unsuccessful applicants.
  • Offer discounted or free use of facilities such as halls and meeting rooms.
  • Use your influence or leverage your resources to assist groups.
  • Connect community groups to each other when you identify synergies - they might be able to pool resources or share knowledge or work together.
  • Support or facilitate the operation of networks of groups.
  • Refer groups to so they can register for donations.
  • Publish an e-newsletter containing information about training being offered by your organisations or by others nearby, giveaways or discounted goods and services, and anything else that catches your attention and you think might be useful.

Mid-range assistance

These ideas consume more time or other resources.

  • Advise unsuccessful applicants of other possible funding opportunities.
  • Convene networking forums for grantseekers to meet each other or other funders, or both.
  • Have staff provide advice - either one-one-one or at a forum - in their area of expertise; for example, in marketing and communications, finance or advertising.
  • Conduct research advancing knowledge in the field that you fund, and publish the findings.
  • Have your staff serve on community sector boards.
  • Run a grants workshop at the start of a funding round. This could be a one-day or two-day workshop, covering topics such as developing ideas into proposals, meeting eligibility and selection criteria, and developing timelines and budgets.
  • Build a pre-assessment process into your grants cycle: as you look over applications, contact the applicant if you notice there is a document missing, for example, or if they have forgotten to fill out a section.

The top rung

These ideas are for those grantmakers for whom capacity building is a high priority.

  • Run a short-term skills and training program (for example, ten topics each covered by a 90-minute session).
  • Run a longer-term intensive skills development program (for example, six large-group meetings with a trainer over 12 months). Topics might include fundraising plans, marketing plans, board-staff dynamics, or staff-volunteer dynamics.
  • Offer grant-specific training - award a grant on the condition that the grantseeker undertake training that you deem necessary (and that you fund or provide).
  • Provide direct management support (such as project development).
  • Provide your staff to mentor community groups or fund independent mentors.
  • Provide one-on-one assistance with applications.