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Capacity Building: Connecting, Inspiring, Transforming…People

November 23, 2009

Author: Terri Lee Freeman

To be sure, “capacity-building” – that is, strengthening an organization’s infrastructure through thoughtful planning and sustained implementation – is a hot topic in the nonprofit community these days. But let’s talk about what capacity-building really means for our sector.

Capacity building should leverage additional attention and resources for a more focused impact; it should be collaborative; it should be participatory; provide support for general operating, operational effectiveness, and collective learning; and, it should strengthen the voice of the nonprofit sector to advocate for the region’s diverse communities. Capacity building is a means to an end and the end is the people who live in the communities we serve. The Community Foundation has been investing in the capacity of nonprofit organizations throughout this region for many years.

It began with the Washington Area Partnership for Immigrants, now the Partnership for Equity, building the capacity of leaders of organizations working on social justice issues on behalf of communities of color. Our Partnership for Prince George’s County, spearheaded by our affiliate, The Prince George’s Community Foundation, focuses on strengthening the nonprofit infrastructure in a county where many nonprofits operate on an annual budget of $25,000 or less and receive minimal funding from any sources beyond local government. Our other affiliate, The Montgomery County Community Foundation, operates the Nonprofit Advancement Fund, which helps build the capacity of small and emerging organizations in a county that is seeing increased diversity and unfortunately increasing poverty.

So why all the buzz about capacity building? The number of nonprofits in this country has exploded over the past decade. Just in the District of Columbia alone, there are more than 3,000 nonprofits – and that number simply exceeds the funding that is available out there. More pointedly, many of the 3,000 should consider closing their doors because they really don’t have the capacity, the organizational heft, to deliver the services on the necessary scale to truly impact community or to demonstrate an effective return on investment to funders. In many cases, the organizations that have built and continue to build their capacity to operate both efficiently and with measurable impact are the ones that are best able to secure funding and carry out their programs successfully.

Another reason is certainly our current economy. Too many organizations are operating on life-support right now, hunkering down and praying they can wait it out. The problem is you can’t wait out what becomes the new normal.Nonprofits that survive will be those that focus not just on what they do, but how they do it. A strong organization has the ability to build a strong constituency. And strong neighbors build strong neighborhoods and communities.

The real action in capacity building happens outside a nonprofit’s four walls, and reaches into our communities to make them better places to live. It reaches into our communities and empowers people. It reaches into our communities and creates an engaged citizenry. That’s capacity building at its finest!

P.S.: Join our Facebook “Neighbors in Need” page at

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