Bringing Innovation to Capacity Building

Guest Post by Jared Raynor and Julie Simpson
Jared Raynor is the Director of Evaluation at TCC Group where he leads evaluations of capacity-building initiatives and evaluation system design. Julie Simpson is the Director of Nonprofit Strategy and Capacity Building and has more than 25 years of experience in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors.


Everyone knows that everything is big in Texas.  In the social sector, this means foundations and nonprofits are working to address big complex problems with big missions, big smarts, and big hearts.  In all this big, there is a little problem that requires urgent attention: Those big complex problems and government divestment are placing increasingly heavy burdens on nonprofit organizations.  While the big missions, big smarts, and big hearts will (and have) carried weight that far exceeds their resources, it is unwise and unreasonable to assume they can continue without something changing.

It is alluring to think that we can product innovate our way around this challenge.  With hundreds of new nonprofits formed each year and new foundations bringing new resources to the sector, certainly we’re likely to identify some silver bullets, right?  Well, maybe… While innovation will likely increase our effectiveness in certain areas, and maybe even gain some efficiencies, without thoughtful investment in the capacity of those new organizations—PLUS those organizations that have been the bedrock of Texas communities for decades—the weight of social problems and government disinvestment will be crushing.  The answer may be in bringing the idea of social innovation to something well-established: capacity building.

To address this capacity issue, organizations in Texas and beyond are working on innovations in the way we approach capacity building in the social sector. These capacity innovations range in focus, and include increased investment in the people side of nonprofits and the Ford Foundation’s massive commitment to their BUILD efforts.  In Texas, St. David’s Foundation took a new approach to capacity building by moving away from grantmaking to individual grantees that addressed areas that St. David’s Foundation felt was most urgently in need of attention, towards a more systematic approach that includes a detailed diagnostic phase, tiered involvement, a mix of cohort-supported and consultant-supported activities, and a robust measurement process to track progress.

There are a few key elements that many of these innovative capacity-building approaches have in common:

  • Acknowledge that one size does not fit all and that any given person or organization is part of a larger ecosystem that drives the type of capacity that is most important;
  • Think systematically about capacity and capacity building, e.g., using concrete diagnostics to help define and assess capacity;
  • Recognize that funders are an intricate part of the ecosystem—not just bags of money, but critical social sector actors that shape, define, engage with, and otherwise actively participate in the social ecosystem (and have capacity needs of their own that should not go unexamined);
  • Commit to monitoring and assessing progress toward capacity goals, and make modifications along the way.

These core principles are helping to drive capacity innovations in the social sector.  When implemented side-by-side with innovations in products or services, along with the scaling and sustaining of programs that work, the big missions, big smarts, and big hearts of the social sector stand a fighting chance against those big Texas-sized problems we are all committed to solving.

Wherever you are, we trust you will author part of this new conversation around capacity building that we hope will continue to blossom.  We described how today’s social sector arrived at this new conversation in a paper we released called Capacity Building 3.0, and we look forward to sharing more information and examples of foundations experimenting with new ways to build capacity in the social sector at our session.

Don’t miss Jared and Julie’s session on Thursday, 9/8 at the Mission Capital Conference!

Strengthening the Social Sector Ecosystem
The social sector is evolving beyond a framework of individual or organizational capacity into an ecosystem approach to solving problems. Jared and Julie will highlight specific, Texas-based groups that are employing this ecosystem approach and seeing powerful results. Learn to assess the capacity of nonprofits using an ecosystem lens, and how funders, the private sector and government can work together to increase efficiency, effectiveness and scale.

Related Content

3+3+3 = How to Get People Excited About Your Nonprofit

Most of us are usually ready with the good ‘ol “elevator pitch”, but how do we make people excited to learn more about our organization?

Learn More

Working on Internal Equity Together

MC members joined us for an evening of internal equity work discussion, which included a panel of their peers and tons of valuable resources.

Learn More

Transform Your Journey with our Leadership Academies

No matter where you are in your professional journey, our Leadership Academies to help you get where you want to be this 2020.

Learn More