Many of us think of capacity building as the boring but important stuff we need to get our missions done: people, office and program space, technology, infrastructure, professional development, and so on. There are amazing capacity builders, including state associations, back-office providers, philanthropic networks, consulting firms, etc., and their work has been vital for thousands of organizations.
However, as fundraising, philanthropy, evaluation, and other areas in our field undergo an existential crisis, so too must capacity building. What we are doing may have worked in the past, but it may be irrelevant or even harmful to do the same things now. Most capacity building philosophies and practices have been very white, one-size fits all, and lacks a racial justice analysis, among other problems that RVC’s Transformational Capacity Building model points out. As we work to address these issues, here are some other ones I am starting to see:
Capacity building often furthers incrementalism: So many capacity building strategies and activities home in on easily-measurable, short-term goals such as developing a strategic plan, increasing board effectiveness, strengthening fundraising systems. Not that these are not important goals (they sometimes are), but it often seems that we’ve lost sight of bigger, more audacious goals.
Capacity building often prevents the true actualization of many missions: So much of capacity building is to help nonprofits develop skills and experience in bookkeeping, HR policies, grantwriting, etc. What is missing has been this analysis of should they even be developing capacity in these areas, or is it just a distraction? How many organizations and leaders are learning bookkeeping when they really should be focused on mobilizing their communities, for example?
Capacity building often legitimizes inequitable systems: So much of capacity building is not organizations being intrinsically motivated to learn various skills, but because they have to in order to function within inequitable systems. Grantwriting, for example. Grant applications are a horrible way to distribute funding, one that mostly rewards white-led organizations that can speak the white-dominant grant language and understand unwritten white-dominant rules. By building people’s capacity to navigate grants, we legitimize grant proposals as a valid philanthropic tool.
Capacity building often reinforces neutrality and white moderation: Unfortunately, our field has a fear and disdain of engaging in what we perceive to be “political.” Capacity building has for the most part reinforced this sort of neutral, moderate stance through avoiding engaging with systems change work and anything that may seem too polarizing.
Read the full article about capacity building by Vu Le at Nonprofit AF.
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