Category Archives: Capacity Building

Funders, you want to help build organizational capacity? Then stop trying to build organizational capacity and just give Multi-Year General Operating Dollars (MYGOD!)

[Image description: A super ridiculously cute tiny white kitten in a big reed basket! They are sitting peacefully in the basket and looking upward with these giant round eyes! This is the fluffiest, most adorable baby kitten ever. This kitten has nothing to do with capacity building, but you’re welcome. Image from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, before we tackle today’s fun and exciting topic, a couple of announcements.

First, our administration is stepping up its concerted attacks on immigrants and refugees, preparing for further ICE raids to terrorize families and children. Here are few things you can do in response. Please take some time to do them.

Second, my organization continues to grow, so now we’re hiring an Organizational Learning Coordinator. This is an early-career position for those who love data and evaluation and learning and writing about all the cool stuff RVC and our partners are doing and the impact its having. Please check it out, and pass it along to your networks. Must love Oxford Commas.

Third, I will be going to Vietnam for the next three weeks. I wrote several blog posts in advance, so the blog schedule remains the same. However, since I had to write them quickly, the quality may have been affected. Apologies in advance.

I had written earlier about the Capacity Paradox, where foundations will not invest in an organization unless that organization has strong capacity, which it can’t build strong capacity unless foundations invest in it. It is a terrible Catch-22 that has screwed over many organizations, especially organizations led by marginalized communities. But now, there is another Capacity Paradox, where funders’ hyper focus on capacity building is precisely the thing that prevents capacity from being built.

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The Mycelium Model for capacity builders, professional associations, funders, and other support organizations

[Image description: Two velvet foot mushrooms, one tall one and one short one, growing from a log. They are both bright orange and standing on a cylindrical stem. The big one has gills. The mycelium is not shown. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

Hi everyone, if you haven’t filled out the Fundraising Perception Survey, please do so. It’ll take 10 minutes and I will send you a baby bunny. (OK, I was just told by our lead evaluator that bribing people with adorable pets would bias the results, so strike that).

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Every year, I look forward to the Puget Sound Mycological Society’s Wild Mushrooms Show, where hundreds of types of mushrooms are on display. All are critical to the ecosystem. Some are edible and delicious; others are poisonous; a few phosphoresce in the dark; several gradually melt into a sticky mess. In other words, mushrooms are very much like nonprofits.

All jokes aside, there is much that mushrooms can teach us. We can liken direct service organizations to mushrooms, as they provide sustenance to a variety of plants and animals. They are vital because they feed the community. However, for mushrooms to flourish, the mycelium must be strong. This is the vast but mostly underground network of root-like tendrils. Mycelium is like an invisible tree, and the mushrooms you see are the visible fruit. The mycelium does many important things: Brings nourishment, clears out toxins, connects mushrooms to one another, creates symbiosis with other species, and decomposes and recycles nutrients, among other things.

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The urgency of making big funding bets on organizations led by marginalized communities

[Image descriptions: Four stacks of coins of ascending height in a straight line from left to right, with a large filled with coins at the end of the line. Each stack of coins as well as the jar has a green plant with multiple leaves growing out of it, the size of the plants also increasing with the height of the stack of coins or jar. They appear to be outdoors, with an out-of-focus outdoorsy background. Image by Pixabay. Description, as always, by Vu].

Last week, SSIR published a case study I co-authored with David Bley of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation detailing Gates’s significant investment in my organization, Rainier Valley Corps (RVC). Our partnership started with 1.1 million over four years to launch RVC’s fellowship program to bring more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector. These brilliant leaders would run programs, fundraise, set up systems, mobilize community members, and do whatever else the organization needs to be effective. About half the fellows are hired full-time at their host organizations during or after their fellowship, a critical outcome when only 18% of nonprofit professionals are people of color.

After running our successful fellowship program for a year, RVC learned several significant lessons, including the fact that the philosophy that grounds organizational development does not work for organizations led by communities of color. This philosophy, as I’ve pointed out before, is basically to force all organizations to be generalists, so that even small grassroots organizations must scramble to do HR, finance, payroll, evaluation, communications, legal compliance, contract monitoring, etc. And the ones that cannot do all these highly complex tasks simultaneously and with a degree of quality are punished.

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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.  Continue reading

Philanthropy and the Destructive Illusion of “Leveling the Playing Field”

[Image description: Closeup of a person kneeling on a race track, as if in preparation to run in a race. They are wearing shorts and holding a baton. Image from Pixabay.com]

A few months ago a program officer and I were talking about the lack of funding that goes to communities-of-color-led nonprofits (only about 10% of philanthropic dollars go to organizations of color). He shook his head in sympathy and frustration, sipping on his coffee. “There has to be a way to level the playing field,” he said. This was probably the third time that quarter I had heard that phrase uttered by a funder. 

This concept of “Leveling the Playing Field” is very present in our sector in our society, like cats or skinny jeans, and we don’t really question it at all. We assume that it is a good thing. If we just make it so that competitions are “fair,” then the people/groups with the most merit, the best ideas and proposals, will win. If we can just make the field more even, then everyone will be able to play the game and everything is good. 

This philosophy has led some thoughtful funders to accept applications in Spanish or other languages, accept handwritten applications, or accept non-written formats such as videos or photos (Although, how effective is this last one when my one-man show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Capacity Building, has never resulted in funding?). 

Those practices are great, but can they level the playing field? Can the funding field ever be “level”? Continue reading