“What you see is what you get.” This phrase is often used to describe a person who is very straightforward, but it can have another meaning – what you are able to see, what you choose to notice, affects what you can accomplish.
As consultants at TCC Group, where we work with funders of all types to provide strategy, capacity building and evaluation services, we often see this second meaning at work. The way a funder defines a problem, a field, an issue or a set of stakeholders can have a powerful effect on the impact it can achieve. And while situations vary, there are better and worse ways of seeing.
Consider the term “capacity building.” In the social sector, it has been lifted up as a panacea and mocked as a placebo. But the discussion often fails to make a fundamental distinction between capacity (skills, knowledge and relationships) and capacity building (the process of cultivating those skills, knowledge and relationships). As a result, people focus on the processes and logistics of capacity building (the how) without identifying clearly what capacities need to be built and who needs to build them.
In a new paper, “Capacity Building 3.0: How to Strengthen the Social Ecosystem,” we and our TCC Group colleagues map the evolution of capacity building over the last few decades, arguing that in today’s environment, all the actors in the social ecosystem must pay attention to both their own capacity and the capacity of other stakeholders in the system – including funders. In an ecosystem context, capacity means not just skills and knowledge but also relationships. And effective relationships start with a clear sense of who’s playing what role.
Today’s environment requires significant adaptive capacity: the ability to learn from the environment and use that information to update one’s strategies. It also requires relational capacity: the ability to understand your ecosystem and to structure yourself to be adaptive as it evolves. Relational capacity begins with the vision to see one’s organization amidst the other organizations, actors and systems to which it relates. No longer is it enough to design strategies and build capacity as far as the walls of one’s own organization. Today’s complex, multidimensional challenges require more effective collaboration within and across sectors.
This is especially true for funders seeking to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations. Too often, when funders consider capacity building, they focus on the capacity of grantee organizations. On the surface, this is laudable. But it does a disservice to the funders themselves, and their grantees. The trouble starts with seeing the relationship as one-way – funders helping nonprofits build their capacity. This limited vision doesn’t allow the funders to identify and build their own capacity as partners, conveners, advocates, brokers, network weavers and influencers. If they allow themselves to be defined as just “the bank,” funders won’t be able to see what capacities they themselves need to build, or how they can play a constructive role in relation to nonprofits and other actors, such as government bodies and companies. What’s needed is a shift from best-intentioned, yet incomplete, diagnostics of nonprofits, to multidirectional capacity analysis and knowledge exchange for mutual benefit.
So what can funders do to help facilitate this shift? Several things come to mind:
Let us cite one experience in which TCC was able to work with a funder to help craft individualized capacity-building initiatives to benefit a community as a whole, and thus every player in the ecosystem. Most of the nonprofits working with a health funder in Texas had an advocacy focus or sought to influence health policy or change public perceptions on health. Understanding the collective aspirations of the nonprofit health sector in the region helped the funder design a capacity-building initiative to identify the organizations most ready to receive targeted support for using local resources. We then were able to work with the various stakeholders to design a process that leveraged everyone’s strengths, needs and learning objectives. It’s impossible to predict where this kind of exploration will lead the group, but it will be a shared destination and likely lead to long-term impact.
What our six recommendations have in common is that they are grounded in a different vision of the relationship between funders and nonprofits, one that is more collaborative, mutual and iterative. “What you see is what you get” – to get a deeper form of capacity building, funders should start by striving to see their role and capacity needs through a broader ecosystem lens, choosing to notice how they can mutually improve the capacity of all within that ecosystem.
These are just some of the ideas TCC Group takes on in “Capacity Building 3.0“. We invite others to contribute to the conversation. Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @TCCGROUP with the hashtag #cb3point0.
Chris Cardona is director of philanthropy, Julie Simpson is director of nonprofit strategy and capacity building, and Jared Raynor is director of evaluation at TCC Group.