Capacity building’s necessary existential crisis

[Image description: A fly agaric mushroom with a white stem, bright red domed cap with white spots, growing out of the mossy ground. Image by cafepampas on Pixabay]

Hi everyone, in observance of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, here is a great list by Cultural Survival of events happening all over the country, including important conversations on doing land acknowledgements right, supporting Indigenous folks who are LGBTQIA, decolonizing the classroom, and more. Check out this Activist’s Guide for Supporting Indigenous Peoples’ Day from IllumiNative. Here are five more ideas.

Meanwhile, we should all remember that less than one half of one percent of total philanthropic funding in the US goes to Native communities, according to Native Americans in Philanthropy. Foundations, you can do better. The rest of us who are non-Native, donate to Native/Indigenous organizations, pay rent for the land we’re on (such as through here if you’re on Duwamish land), and support local Native/Indigenous artists and businesses, such as Eighth Generation. And let’s not allow this day to be the only time we learn about, make reparations toward, and support Native communities.


Last week I was asked to present at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s conference about the future of capacity building, and what capacity builders can learn from Star Trek. The team at RVC, meanwhile, wrote a really important article on Transformational Capacity Building, exploring the ways that traditional capacity building tactics have often actually been harmful to organizations led by and serving Black, Indigenous, POC, and other marginalized communities, and presenting a new framework. And here’s the article I wrote on the Mycelium Model of Capacity Building, where I lay out what mushrooms can teach us about capacity building.

It is really exciting to see that we are starting to look at this area with a more critical lens and evolve it to work better for the organizations and movements led by communities most affected by systemic injustice. Given the events of this year, including the pandemic, the protests against racism, and our last-ditch effort to prevent the US from sliding deeper into fascism, our sector really needs to further reexamine our perspectives on capacity building.

Many of us think of capacity building as the boring but important stuff we need to get our missions done: people, office and program space, technology, infrastructure, professional development, and so on. There are amazing capacity builders, including state associations, back-office providers, philanthropic networks, consulting firms, etc., and their work has been vital for thousands of organizations.

However, as fundraising, philanthropy, evaluation, and other areas in our field undergo an existential crisis, so too must capacity building. What we are doing may have worked in the past, but it may be irrelevant or even harmful to do the same things now. Most capacity building philosophies and practices have been very white, one-size fits all, and lacks a racial justice analysis, among other problems that RVC’s Transformational Capacity Building model points out. As we work to address these issues, here are some other ones I am starting to see:

Capacity building often furthers incrementalism: So many capacity building strategies and activities home in on easily-measurable, short-term goals such as developing a strategic plan, increasing board effectiveness, strengthening fundraising systems. Not that these are not important goals (they sometimes are), but it often seems that we’ve lost sight of bigger, more audacious goals. Our strategic plans are often safe and boring. We talk about how to make boards slightly more tolerable instead of questioning the entire problematic default board structure. Our fundraising is still grounded in white saviorism and poverty tourism. Capacity building often gives the illusion of progress while actually preventing more meaningful progress from happening.

Capacity building often prevents the true actualization of many missions: So much of capacity building is to help nonprofits develop skills and experience in bookkeeping, HR policies, grantwriting, etc. What is missing has been this analysis of should they even be developing capacity in these areas, or is it just a distraction? Imagine you have a plumbing school. Some folks sign up to learn how to fix broken sinks and toilets. Over several months, they make lots of progress. You’re proud because you see all the plumbing skills they’re learning. Then one day, you realize that these folks are actually doctors. They feel like they’re learning, and you feel really good, but the reality is that while they’re learning plumbing, they’re prevented from practicing medicine. How many organizations and leaders are learning bookkeeping when they really should be focused on mobilizing their communities, for example?

Capacity building often legitimizes inequitable systems: You may be thinking, “But that’s ridiculous. Why would a group of doctors suddenly decide to learn plumbing?” Well, what if they’ve been told they need to learn plumbing or else funding for their clinics would be cut? That would be a really terrible thing, right? Forcing doctors to be plumbers? So much of capacity building is not organizations being intrinsically motivated to learn various skills, but because they have to in order to function within inequitable systems. Grantwriting, for example. Grant applications are a horrible way to distribute funding, one that mostly rewards white-led organizations that can speak the white-dominant grant language and understand unwritten white-dominant rules. By building people’s capacity to navigate grants, we legitimize grant proposals as a valid philanthropic tool. What other inequitable philosophies and practices are we legitimizing through capacity building?

Capacity building often reinforces neutrality and white moderation: As I’ve mentioned multiple times, we as a sector needs to focus on the levers of power if we hope to effectively address injustice. This includes getting more women of color elected into office, ending voter suppression, changing the tax code so rich people pay their fair share of taxes, decreasing the influence of money on politics, and shaping the public narrative to align with truth and science. Unfortunately, our field has a fear and disdain of engaging in what we perceive to be “political.” Capacity building has for the most part reinforced this sort of neutral, moderate stance through avoiding engaging with systems change work and anything that may seem too polarizing.

With everything going on—the threat to democracy, the increase in racism and misogyny, the undoing of hard-won progressive victories—capacity building, and capacity builders, cannot continue to operate as it has always done. If we’re in the Nonprofit Hunger Games, then capacity builders are often like the characters Effie Trinket or Haymitch Abernathy, good folks who train and support the tributes so they can increase their skills and chance of survival in the battles to the death. What our communities need now are not more survival skills, but to figure out how to work together to bring the games crashing down.

I know that’s a lot to take in (I mentioned mushrooms, Star Trek, and Hunger Games all in one post). Please feel free to disagree with anything. I hope this post will start some conversations among capacity builders. As I mentioned, our sector is going through a necessary existential reckoning. No longer can we assume that everything we do is net positive. We have to examine how we may be complicit in furthering the injustice we’re trying to end. This applies to capacity building. This is a painful but necessary process, but I think capacity building practices will come out on the other side more effective and more aligned with our sector’s prime directive of realizing a better, more just world.