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Nonprofit Strategies

When you build capacity, ask why

Learn all about capacity building from Carolyn Keller, Founder of Curio412. She explains different ways you can build capacity, as well as top tips to grow your organization's effectiveness.

Carolyn Keller
September 7, 2021
Nerd Mr Butter

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Capacity building is one of those buzzwords that can mean anything and everything. When we think about "capacity," we understand it as the ability to do a particular thing.

With that in mind, capacity building is the process by which you obtain, improve, and retain the skills, knowledge, tools, equipment, and other resources needed for your team to do its job at a higher level. Imagine a food pantry whose goal is to reach more people in need within their community. They might achieve this by recruiting volunteers, soliciting more food or monetary donations, hiring new staff, or creating more efficient processes.

By building capacity, you increase the scale of your organization, serve more people, and have a more significant impact.

In most of the organizations I have worked with, deciding to build capacity is an investment in your organization that happens one step at a time. For capacity building to be effective, it must be focused.

Let's look at three ways in which you can enhance your capacity for impact. Then we can consider how to focus your efforts.

Three ways to build capacity for impact 💪

Organizational effectiveness

The processes you set up at your organization have a significant impact on your ability to operate efficiently. Often, organizations juggle so many activities that they don't clearly understand how it all works. Operating processes that are understood should be written down, accessible to everyone at your organization, and reviewed for any gaps or redundancies. Many organizations fail to review their foundation because it feels like they need to drop something important to focus on their operations. They fear that it will waste time and consequently detract from serving their mission. However, smooth processes can save you time and create higher productivity. Slow down to speed up.


The idea of receiving more funding is always easier said than done. Increasing your financial capacity can be obtained through grants, individual donors, corporate partnerships, and more. Finding these opportunities takes time to strategically build trusting relationships and get in front of the right people. While funding seems like a silver bullet for many organizations, capacity building is always complex. What is the best use of funds? Resources, staff, space? Obtaining funding should strategically build your organization, meaning you need to understand the priority needs within your organization.

Staff development

Investing in your staff (both paid and volunteer) is essential to recruiting, supporting, and retaining an engaged team. Developing staff requires attention to team culture and skill-building. An empowered team is equipped with the strategy and resources for continued growth within your organization. This team can create a culture where innovation and enthusiasm for your mission thrives. You can also develop paths for upward mobility of staff which enables your organization to form a strong foundation of institutional knowledge for the future.

The importance of asking why 🤔

Depending on the circumstances in your organization, any one of these areas might enhance your capacity. How do you choose? One tool I use to help organizations focus is a root cause analysis exercise called the 5 Whys Technique. During this exercise, teams state a problem and ask "why" five times until they discover the root cause. It works like this:

👉 Our organization needs grant funding. — Why?

👉 We want to expand our programming. — Why?

👉 The demand for our services is so great that our staff can't keep up. — Why?

👉 Our staff wear too many hats. They get overwhelmed and burnt out. — Why?

Root Cause: We lack the appropriate resources and time to support our staff or invest in additional staff to address the demand for our services.

In this example, it initially seems as though funding will address the issues of this organization. However, while funding certainly increases staffing and capacity, the root cause behind the needs of this organization is focused on the resources and time necessary to support staff. Consequently, this organization should consider focusing its efforts on developing staff or increasing its organizational effectiveness. With an understanding of staff and effectiveness, this organization clarifies what resources are needed to create more time for supporting staff efforts when it seeks funding to expand its capacity.

Track your growth over time 📈

No matter what area of capacity building you decide to focus on, it's important to set clear goals and metrics for tracking your results. This is called impact management, it is a process where data helps you to plan, implement, and make decisions with a measurable outcome in mind. The most important metrics for you to track are called indicators, which demonstrate the results you want to see.

Indicators should:

📣 Communicate well—anyone who sees them should understand their importance.

📍 Represent something of central importance to the results you want to achieve.

👊 Be a reliable and consistent source of information.

These measures will help you know if your efforts are working and can be harnessed to better understand and improve your outcomes.

Indicators can also help you clarify your message. As an organization driven to make lasting change, tracking your results will help you develop a process where you use the information you collect to demonstrate and multiply your impact where it matters most.

When you track the results of your efforts to build capacity, you can:

🏆 Share your impact and accomplishments with stakeholders who already invested in your cause through monetary and in-kind contributions.

🗺 Evaluate impact alongside your staff and use it to guide decision-making.

🔍 Identify areas for improvement.

🎯 Set new goals.

✨ Make changes to create a more effective service.

🔥 Promote your impact through data-driven storytelling that creates a compelling message and inspires others to join your cause.

You got this, Changemaker ⚡️

Capacity building invests in the building blocks that best serve your organization. When you determine the appropriate investment, set clear goals, and track your results, you strengthen the foundation of your organization. You also create opportunities to create enthusiasm around your success for current and future donors.

With everything, there is always room for continuing development and improvement. Ask yourself: how well did we tackle the challenge of enhancing our capacity for impact? Then identify where you can build more momentum.

Givebutter made a $100 donation to Carolyn’s charity of choice, Humane Animal Rescue of Pittsburgh, for her guest blog contribution.

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