I was in a meeting with a group of nonprofit leaders the other day, and one of them voiced an often-heard complaint: “There just aren’t many foundations funding nonprofit capacity building.”
I was instantly reminded of my mother’s admonishment when I would come home from school with complaints about a classroom rule or a frustrating teacher. She would say, “Well, you have a mouth on you, don’t you?” Her quip was intended to encourage me to stop complaining about an inadequacy (however small, in my case) and do something to change it.
While I am the first to bemoan the lack of adequate resources in the nonprofit sector, nonprofit leaders themselves do have some agency to turn the tide and find funding to create more effective and sustainable organizations.
Rather than searching for donors who already express an interest in funding nonprofit capacity (like fundraising staff and systems, program evaluation, technology), it is actually more effective if a nonprofit leader takes it upon herself to create her own capacity funders.
But that requires a process, like this:
Move From Scarcity to Abundance Thinking
You can’t hope to solve your capacity challenges without thinking that they are, in fact, solvable. Many nonprofit leaders are so used to going without that they don’t allow themselves and their staffs to envision what could make things better. So start by brainstorming with your staff the hurdles standing in your way (lack of fundraising staff, inadequate technology, poor long-term planning, disengaged board of directors). Then list the kinds of investments you could make to solve those challenges (new staff positions, new technology and systems, strategic planning, board training) without constraining those potential solutions due to their costs.
Create a Capacity Building Plan
Once you have articulated what is standing in your way and the potential solutions to those hurdles, create a plan for overcoming your nonprofit’s challenges. Because funders often see capacity funding as more “risky” than traditional programming support, a nonprofit leader interested in securing capacity building funds must put together a clear plan for the need, solutions, costs and execution plan for capacity support. Clearly articulate what capacity changes you need to make, why, what those changes will help you accomplish, and over what timeframe.
Create a Capacity Building Budget
Attached to your capacity building plan must be the dollars necessary to implement the plan. What would it cost for a new donor database, a program evaluation, or your other needed capacity investments? Do the research and then create the capital requirements, over an adequate timeframe (2-3 years), for the capacity building needs you have. Now you know how much capacity capital you need to raise.
Brainstorm Capacity Donors
Just as you would with a traditional capital campaign, create a list of potential donors to whom you will pitch this “capacity capital campaign.” This is where the real magic happens — when you turn traditional donors into capacity building donors, perhaps without them even knowing it. A good capacity building donor is someone (a major individual donor, board member, or foundation funder) who is already a donor to your nonprofit and can be convinced (through your excellent persuasion skills) that an investment in your capacity building plan (above) will actually help your organization do even more of the things they love.
Work the Prospect List
Just as you would in a major donor campaign, begin meeting one-on-one with these prospective capacity building donors to share your capacity building plan and articulate how critically important these capacity building investments are to the future of your work together. Make a clear, compelling argument about how greater organizational capacity will help you further the mission that these donors love. Connect greater effectiveness and sustainability directly to more programming, more people served, more outcomes achieved.
Demonstrate the Return on Their Investment
Once you’ve secured them, provide those donors who become capacity builders a regular update on the progress of your capacity building efforts. And I have seen tremendous results that nonprofits can report on these types of capacity investments. One of my clients was able to translate $65,000 worth of capacity building investments in strategic planning, board development, fundraising training and leader coaching into 300% growth in the number of people they reached with their services. Another client turned $350,000 worth of capacity building investments in a new donor database, fundraising staff and training, and donor research into a $1.4 million annual increase in fundraising. If you make enough and the right kind of capacity investments, you can see gains in programming, efficiency, and fundraising effectiveness, so share those wins with those who invested in them. And believe me, your capacity donors will be hungry for more.
Instead of continuing to complain about a lack of capacity funding in the nonprofit sector, let’s fix it. A big part of the solution lies in nonprofit leaders planning for and initiating capacity building conversations with their current donors. And in so doing, nonprofit leaders themselves can change philanthropy for the better.
To learn more about turning your donors into capacity funders, download the Launch a Capacity Capital Campaign Step-by-Step Guide.
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