Investing in future strength and capability

Capacity-building is the process of developing an organization's strength and sustainability. More than just important, it is essential for your non-profit's health and longevity. Capacity-building enables you to focus on your mission—not simply on survival.

What capacity building means

By definition, capacity-building is a measurable improvement in an organization's ability to fulfil its mission through a blend of sound management, strong governance, and dedication to assessing and achieving results.

Capacity-building is a specific effort to strengthen:

  • Organizational infrastructure. This includes things like facilities (both workplaces and service locations), equipment (computers and other technology, office supplies, equipment essential to services) and workplace operations (such as payroll and accounting).

  • Management and governance. This refers to your non-profit's board and executives.

  • Staff capacity. This includes education and professional development.

Imagine a food bank that improves its inventory management system, so it can deliver more food, more quickly, to more people. The food bank boosted its performance by enhancing its internal management. It's capacity-building in action.

Why capacity-building matters

Improving management practices is a well-accepted tenet in the business world. The practice traditionally has received short shrift in the non-profit realm, however, where the focus has more often been on projects rather than infrastructure.

Without capacity-building, you risk focusing all of your energy and attention on providing services and expanding projects. This lack of a strong foundation may lead to organizational instability, which might appear in old and deteriorating equipment, poor communication between leadership and staff, and "mission drift"—a loss of focus on your non-profit's founding principles.

Don't make the mistake of being so absorbed in seeking support for your signature program that you fail to assess whether the program is functioning as well as it could—or even if it's the best vehicle to achieve your non-profit's goals in the long run.

Where to target capacity-building efforts

With capacity-building, you will maintain focus and determine the best ways to deliver your vision and mission. You will create and maintain strong foundations for projects, measure internal effectiveness and external impact, and plan and cultivate strategic relationships.






Who to involve

Capacity-building generally begins with board members, who might offer ideas for innovation and opportunities for expansion. Involving staff in capacity-building is also key. Group learning improves information retention and brings the organization into the capacity-building fold as a whole.

Outside consultants may play a role here, too. While it may seem counterintuitive to pay a consultant for input on the "back office" operations of a program-oriented organization, returns on that investment may include greater efficiencies, more precisely targeted services, and more capable, knowledgeable staff.

How to find the funds

Earmarking some of your operating budget for a capacity-building initiative is an investment in your organization's future strength and capability. You may also seek dedicated capacity-building support from grantmakers wishing to leverage their philanthropic donations. 

Keep timelines and goals realistic

The broad result of a capacity-building effort should be an overall strengthening of purpose, but more concrete improvements are key. According to a study of non-profits in Minnesota the USA, concrete goals for reorganizing might include completion of a strategic plan, improved fundraising techniques, improved communication with clients and addressing changes in client demographics.

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