Capacity Building in California to Create Change

posted on: July 7, 2011

As we traveled around the country interviewing community leaders about their advocacy and organizing impacts for NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project, we also asked them about their capacity building needs and how they could best be met.


The common responses we heard were:

  • The need for flexible funding. General support grants are best, yet even a small multi-year capacity grant can make a difference. But the paperwork requirements for these grants should be reasonable.
  • The need to determine for themselves what the capacity needs are—whether “capacity” means strategic planning or a new photocopier.
  • The need for culturally appropriate capacity building, not one-size-fits-all or generic approaches.


One advocate in the Northwest region summarized the frustrations of many groups:


“Often, funders come in and decide what’s needed. It’s a very top-down approach. They throw a lot of consultants at it. What’s missing is the ask—‘What are the [capacity] needs? What are the special needs in your community?’ “


Luckily, the TCC Group just published a new report with useful lessons for grantmakers who seek to build the capacity of social change organizations. Strengthening Organizations to Mobilize Californians summarizes key findings from a large-scale capacity building initiative (“the Initiative”) undertaken jointly by three foundations: The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the David & Lucile Packard Foundation. Irvine was cited by several organizing groups in our Los Angeles County report for its individualized and appropriate capacity building efforts.


The Initiative provided varying degrees of support to 27 community organizing groups, including grants, coaching and learning gatherings. The lessons reinforce some of what we’ve learned through our study of organizing and advocacy impacts across seven sites, and they offer funders useful advice for structuring effective capacity building programs.


The evaluation found that multi-year capacity building grants, coupled with in-depth coaching, were highly effective and led to specific behavior changes. The coaching was critical to ensure implementation and follow-through. Groups that received only 2-4 hours of coaching found less benefit, indicating that a certain threshold amount may be needed to add value.


Shared learning opportunities were also beneficial, especially regional trainings. According to the report (see p. 3), the reasons reported by grantees included:


  • The Initiative used a social justice framework and made the trainings relevant to the communities being organized or served.
  • It tailored the trainings to small organizations and provided strategies that could be implemented with limited staff and resources.
  • It enabled organizations to send a team of staff, so that a small group could be in place to share learning with other staff and begin implementing what was learned.


Peer-led exchanges also were positively received, leading to new insights among participants and to a modification of the Initiative to focus more on developing shared leadership within organizations.


The fact that the Initiative was flexible and responsive to participants’ expressed needs and involved them in planning was no doubt a key element in its success. The report includes other important lessons about program design, participant selection and funder coordination.


What lessons have you learned about capacity building for social change organizations?

Photo image: Microsoft Clipart,|mt:1 |

Lisa Ranghelli is the director of NCRP’s Grantmaking for Community Impact Project.