Want effective capacity building? Get rid of the incubation mentality

[Image description: It’s a sweet, tiny, fluffy little baby chicken, relaxing in the grass. It’s kind of light beige. It looks so fluffy. It’s so cute! I want one. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]
Hi everyone, I’m going to rant on the exciting topic of capacity building for this post, since I haven’t done that in a while. But before we do that, if you’re in the regions affected by Hurricane Florence or Typhoon Mangkhut, I hope you and your family are safe. For those of us who would like to help, here are a few nonprofits to donate to for Florence, and for Mangkhut.

Also, my organization Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) just moved into a new building, so we’re having an open house on September 27th from 4:30pm to 7pm. Swing by if you’re in the Seattle area. I’ll be there under the inflated unicorn head. Details and RSVP

For the past year RVC has been growing our Operations Support program. We now have 12 incredible partner organizations under our fiscal sponsorship. RVC handles back-office functions such as payroll, HR, financial management, legal compliance, contract monitoring, etc. In addition, when it makes sense, we also provide fundraising, strategic planning, board development, and other forms of support, as well as send in one or two fellows to work full-time at organizations for two years at a time. By taking on the critical-but-time-consuming operations tasks, we help partner organizations focus on the urgent and vital work that only they can do. RVC at this point only supports organizations led by communities of color in the Seattle area. 

I have been excited about this program so have been talking about it a lot and wrote about it earlier, using Star Trek as an analogy, which has been hit-or-miss depending on whether people are familiar with Star Trek:

“OK, so you know how there are all these starships and they each have a captain and a mission, but there’s also a central agency called Starfleet that provides coordination and services like HR and accounting and stuff so Captain Picard doesn’t have to spend half his time on Quickbooks? Well, currently nonprofits are like starships, but every ship is required to do its own operations, which is not very efficient. RVC is trying to be like a Starfleet for our partner organizations, but way less militaristic! By forming alliances, sharing operations and fundraising, and each focusing on what we’re good at, we can unleash nonprofits’ full power! This is the future of the sector, I tell you, the future!!! Wait, where are you going, kid?”

And this is why I no longer get invited to children’s birthday parties.

Of the people who “get” what we’re trying to do, they become equally excited. However, the first question we get asked is, “Are you an incubator? Is there a timeline for your partner organizations to grow and ‘graduate’ from the program? Like, after three years, they have to get their 501c3 and be on their own? I mean, you can’t keep supporting them forever, right?”

So this is what I’m going to call the incubation mentality, this belief that effective nonprofits have to eventually “grow” out of whatever partnership they are in, whether it’s with a fiscal sponsor or a funding partner. It is a pervasive mentality, happening all across our sector, and it is incredibly annoying, if not downright harmful to our work.

In funding, the Incubation Mentality manifests in many foundations’ expecting nonprofits to be “sustainable,” which results in the totally useless and universally-hated Sustainability Question: “How will you sustain this program when our support runs out?” I’ve already written a lot about how destructive this philosophy is, and if you are facing this question on a grant, just copy and paste the standard response from here, because the question, just like the philosophy around it, is pointless.

In capacity building, it manifests in a similar belief that the ultimate goal of capacity building is moving nonprofits into this state of self-sufficiency where they are not reliant on external resources to run operations tasks. Nonprofits that do not develop these skills internally are seen as failures, constantly relying on outside consultants and subcontractors to do their operations. The capacity building organizations that support them are also seen as failures, because your job is to build capacity, yet organizations are still “under your wings” for years.

We need to completely change how we as a sector see capacity building, because this incubation mentality has actually been preventing nonprofits from achieving their missions. Using the Star Trek analogy again, imagine if we tell Captain Picard, “Hey, you’re an amazing captain and your team is doing incredible stuff, building bridges between alien cultures, etc. And Starfleet has been supporting you by handling all the HR, accounting, legal compliance, contract monitoring, etc. But what is your plan to get the Enterprise to develop its own operations systems so that you’re not so reliant on Starfleet? Is Commander Riker learning Quickbooks?”

That would be ridiculous. And yet incubation is the default philosophy around capacity building. Not that incubators are bad. If you are a capacity builder and your main focus is to develop skills so nonprofits can do stuff themselves, or if your organization’s mission is to help start-up nonprofits by taking them under your wing until they are ready to be on their own, that’s fine. This approach is helpful to many organizations who have sufficient staffing to handle all these operations tasks in addition to programmatic work.

The problem is that the vast majority of nonprofits in our sector are small and do not have the staffing to internally implement a dozen highly-specialized operations tasks. This is especially true of small grassroots organizations led by and serving marginalized communities. So the incubation mentality that guides our sector’s capacity building approach is often not only ineffective but also inequitable.

It’s time we as a sector move out of this mentality. It is paternalistic and prevents models like the one my organization and other capacity builders have been proposing from working. It is ineffective and inefficient for every organization, big or small, to do all its own operations in a misguided attempt to build capacity when it really should be focusing on the critical programs and services that only it can do.

If we are to successfully build Starfleet-like alliances, capacity builders and funders of capacity building have to see that nonprofits, instead of all being isolated generalists, should specialize in their work and be really good at it, and then rely on partnerships for other essential functions.

And if a partnership is working, let’s continue it for as long as it is needed. For Rainier Valley Corps, we will continue to provide our partner organizations with services indefinitely as long as the partnership still works for both parties. And we have seen incredible results when organizations are able to specialize; ironically, they build tremendous capacity when they make capacity building secondary to focus on what they’re good at, a topic for a future rant on capacity building. Sure, we have clauses in our MOUs that allows either party to terminate the relationship with a few months of notice, and we anticipate that some organizations for various reasons will be better served by exiting our program at some point, but we have no pre-determined plans to kick anyone out within a specific timeline.

If you are reading this and wondering how this applies to your organization, here are a few things. First, think of the things that your organization is great at and whether you are spending enough time doing those things.

Second, stop feeling like you have to do all your operations internally. There are plenty of amazing organizations or companies you can outsource your HR, payroll, accounting, and other complex tasks to; your organization doesn’t have to do it all itself, and it really shouldn’t, and in fact, constantly trying to do a dozen things not so well instead of doing a few key things really well is probably one of the big factors for burnout in our sector.

Third, stop feeling guilty if your organization is outsourcing and it’s working and so you are not “developing your organization’s capacity” because someone else is doing it for you. Same thing if you are fiscally sponsored; if it’s working for you, don’t feel pressured to get your own tax status. This is the BS incubation mentality we need to get rid of. 

We all need to reconsider the concept of capacity building and whether some organizations should even be building capacity in certain areas at all, or whether through strategic partnerships, we can way more effectively and efficiently get crucial needs covered, for as long as it makes sense, so we can all specialize and do a kick-ass job on the things we’re naturally really good at.

This is the future, I tell you!!!

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