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Capacity Building for Small Nonprofits

You have a small but thriving nonprofit organization and you successfully provide comprehensive services to a targeted population. You have operated as a nonprofit for almost a decade, receiving grants and donations. You have not yet formally measured your clients’ outcomes, but informal conversations with both your clients and your community describe the positive impact of your program.

You have hired staff and consultants, but you mainly work with volunteers who are as passionate about the mission as you are. You have poured your heart and soul into programming for organization and still you have a long waiting list of clients who want and need your services.

It’s time to build the capacity of your nonprofit organization.

The National Council of Nonprofits defines capacity building as:

Whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, so it may more effectively and efficiently advance its mission into the future.

What does “whatever is needed” encompass?

There are resources for capacity building. The first, and most basic, action to take is to join your state association of nonprofits that can point you to local opportunities. There are also specific grants available for capacity building and training is available through web-based, community colleges, and even larger organizations such as United Way.

Nonprofit consultants can also help you refine your vision and create a plan of action, including helping you find additional resources.

There are three reasons to hire a consultant:

1) a consultant provides experience and expertise in building capacity and often knows the local community.

2) a consultant can be objective and encourage you to grow and improve.

3) a consultant is not working on providing services while trying to build capacity.

Consultant fees can stretch a nonprofit organization’s budget and are often not covered by grant funds. If you look, you can often find a consultant that is committed to your mission and program, they may provide some of their services pro bono.

Building capacity requires a Board of Directors, a strategic plan with a mission and wildly important goals, leadership, program delivery, and the building of fiscal and administrative management (using technology).

Building capacity begins with building your Board of Directors.

Your Board of Directors should ideally be composed of people in your community, including past clients, experts in the service area, local businesses, local higher education institutions, and other organizations with your same commitment. Having a set of clear responsibilities and expectations makes it easier for a prospective member to agree. Your Board of Directors should be both advocates for your program and help you expand your donor base.

Once you have established your Board of Directors, set aside some time for a strategic planning retreat. One day at a nice location can be productive and energizing. Include your clients, your staff, and interested members of your community.

Your strategic planning retreat can be more productive with a pre-planning strategy. Identify your community needs and conduct surveys with your clients and your community partners. Provide the results of your research and an agenda well ahead of time.

You will want a facilitator who is skilled at bringing the different perspectives into a mission, vision, goals, and plan of action. You will also need a notetaker and frequent online polls to gauge audience commitment and excitement about the different aspects of planning.

More time you spend in preplanning and advance conversations will ensure your planning retreat is successful.

The mission statement needs to capture the heart of your program, your passion, and your “why”. Many mission statements are long, wordy and focus on the how. Focusing on the “why” leads to wildly important goals. The action plan is a road map to meeting the wildly important goals.

Engaging your Board of Directors and creating a strategic plan are central to building capacity.

Leadership skills for you and your staff are essential. Investing in a leadership program for yourself is well worth it. Often colleges and universities offer a one or two-day leadership retreat. Your leadership strategy should begin with an honest self-appraisal, what are your strengths and skills. Then hire staff who balance out your strengths with their own. Learn effective communication styles and know that there is not a one-size-fits-all communication style. Rather than following the golden rule, “treat others as you want to be treated”, follow the platinum rule, treat others as they want to be treated. That applies to communication also. Learn their preferred style and adjust your own style so they can hear your message.

Leadership is also about sharing your passion. Develop an elevator speech (45 seconds) in which you outline the benefits of your program and give this speech to everyone you meet.

Your next step is branding your organization. You don’t want to be everything to all people. But you do want your nonprofit organization to be widely known for its specialized services. This is not about selling your nonprofit; it is about letting potential clients and potential donors know what you do and why you do it.

Software to capture donation and volunteer hours is a good investment and part of building capacity. Creating electronic newsletters, social media posts, and blogging are all necessary parts of branding your business, along with a professional website and logo. Post client testimonials prominently on your website.

While building the capacity of your nonprofit organization, you will still be providing services. As you focus on your mission and your wildly important goals, you can examine your existing program to determine what improvements need to be made. You can also start to measure your outcomes. Measurable outcomes, and the artful presentation of these outcomes is important for grant funding, donations, and for the community.

If you are providing educational services to disadvantaged children, measure their school attendance and grade reports. If you are providing employment services to disadvantaged adults, measure the number of interviews and job hires. If you are providing support to survivors of intimate partner violence, measure depression and anxiety, and successful transitions. It is difficult to measure outcomes. It is also essential and part of building capacity.

Building your fiscal and administrative team is often about finding a person with skills to compliment yours who also shares your passion.

At the same time, you want someone to provide honest feedback. Idealist (link) is a job board for nonprofit organizations, social services programs, and advocacy positions. Recently college graduates in social work are also eager to work where their passion lies.

Invest in technology. Nonprofit staff can become overworked and underpaid. Paperwork is the bane of nonprofit organizations. Use tablets, mobile apps, scanners – it's good for your staff, eases client intake and better for the environment.

Dr. Cathleen Armstead, the owner of Sunshine Nonprofit Solutions, provides strategic planning, consulting, and grant writing services to nonprofit organizations working with children and families. With twenty years of experience in the Head Start/Early Head Start world, she continues to advocate and work for social, economic and racial justice.