3 Trends in Nonprofit Capacity Building

Jul 13, 2017

Nonprofits and government agencies’ abilities to solve societal issues are often constrained by organizational capacity. When your roof is leaking, you focus on the immediate issue of repairs and may put off a much-needed basement remodel. The same can often be said for capacity building initiatives; they take time, resources and staff capacity that many nonprofit organizations don’t feel they have, even if it would pay off in the long run.

The Capacity Building track at the Conference on Volunteering and Service, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co., focused on these issues and offered attendees proven and feasible solutions for increasing nonprofit capacity. Across the nine sessions, three trends emerged as to how nonprofits can leverage existing assets and resources to do more.

1. Move from Partnerships to Collaboration

The biggest trend across all the sessions was the need for a pragmatic shift in how nonprofits engage companies and work with other organizations. During the “Corporate-Nonprofit Partnerships Blown Way Out of Proportion” session, Bea Boccalandro, president of VeraWorks, pushed attendees to think about how they could triple their impact by focusing on cultivating integrative partnerships – where the success of both the nonprofit and company are intertwined. “Most relationships between business and nonprofits are philanthropic or transactional. But to get at impact, we need to push towards integrative,” Bea said.

Bea recommended starting small, with pilot initiatives. This was echoed by Rebecca Wang, senior manager of corporate affairs at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, who offered a corporate perspective. Rebecca compared the process of entering a new partnership to taking it slow with a new romantic partner. “When I am working with a newer organization that maybe another company has referred to me, it’s kind of like the dating phase. You are really thinking more about your own benefits. As you go through multiple dates, you start to understand each other better. You may decide to become exclusive. At that point, the commitment to each other becomes integrative.”

Sessions also encouraged nonprofit sector attendees to rethink how they partner with each other. Too often, nonprofits feel that they are competing against one another and therefore cannot truly collaborate. Shonna Ferree and Rikki Wheatley-Boxx of the Public & School Partnership, an AmeriCorps VISTA program, shared best practices for collaborations between organizations and recommended leveraging Corporation for National and Community Service mandated days of service as platforms for local collaboration and outlets for raising awareness of national service efforts.

2. Be Data Driven, Not Numbers Numb

Two sessions focused on the importance of leveraging data, but in strategic and creative ways in order to see real community impact, not just a shift in numbers. In the hands-on “Survey Sense/Let the Creativity In: Exploring Alternative Methods for Data Collection” workshop, Stephanie Lloyd, manager of evaluation and performance measurement at Points of Light, walked participants through a visual survey methodology called SHOWeD, first developed by Wang and Burris in 1997.

For attendee Leah Vanhoeve, the session was thought-provoking. “It was great to be engaged and feel like we could be engaging other people through this instead of staring at a computer screen codifying qualitative data, because it’s really not that different from quantitative data, it’s just two sides of the same coin,” she said. “This felt very out of the box and applicable, and not something I had ever heard of before.”

3. Leverage the Power of Pro Bono

Many nonprofits are interested in recruiting pro bono and skills-based volunteers but are unsure how to start or struggle to find ways to effectively leverage these volunteers to build capacity within their organization. Yet, pro bono volunteers can provide up to 500 percent greater value to nonprofits than the value of traditional volunteering, by supporting needs such as general operations, technology and professional services.

Panelists at the Making the Most of Corporate Skills-Based Volunteering: A Fireside Chat with JPMorgan Chase & Co. session shared tips and best practices for developing a pro bono strategy. Attendees broke into small groups and worked through Common Impact’s skills-based volunteering organizational readiness toolkit.

“We are a volunteer-based organization, so we are very familiar with plugging volunteers into our actual programs, but thinking about pro bono from a capacity building standpoint is something we are just starting to dig into,” said Jessie, an attendee from Grid Alternatives. “It was helpful to hear some examples of how other organizations have done that, but also just some of the resources that Common Impact provided around potential projects and the questions you need to think about before you even approach a company with a pro bono idea.”

These are just a few of the highlights from the Capacity Building track. Across the sessions, attendees were exposed to new ideas, trends and resources to take back to their organizations.

Read more from the 2017 Conference on Volunteering and Service

Robert Montgomery