Capacity

Foundations, to their great credit, have lately taken a more deliberate interest in the management, staffing, structure, and operating methods of the organizations they support. The unassailable premise of this interest is that good works do not accomplish themselves, but are carried out by organizations that may be managed well or ill, may perform their tasks efficiently or wastefully, and may need to change their methods as circumstances dictate.

Making grants and providing expert advice (a/k/a TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE) to help these organizations run better is a profoundly philanthropic mission, and smart besides.

So why has such a good idea brought with it such an infestation of vague, quasi-occult terms, beginning with CAPACITY? Largely because it relies, of necessity, on the scholarly disciplines of management and administration for its ideas and its supply of experts. And those fields have for half a century been a wellspring of weird and abstruse vocabulary. The administrative disciplines, which together constitute more an art than a science, have been particularly rife (as are many of the arts) with terms and phrases that only their practitioners really understand. Turn those words loose in the generalist world of a foundation, and they are likely to proliferate out of all control.

Hunting down all the strange locutions that creep under the wallpaper of modern organizational theory would be a task far beyond the scope of this essay. We instead aim our fumigants specifically at CAPACITY, because it has thrived the most spectacularly in the groves of philanthropy – pastures in which, evidently, the word has no natural predators and so can multiply at will.

A single paper – produced by a respected program of management consultancy for nonprofits – speaks of “capacity assessments,” “capacity investment,” a “capacity shortage,” and the ever popular “capacity-building.” Most of the time, it seems, the word refers to some combination of personnel, computers, and operating procedures. Those are found to be in short supply, and need to be “assessed,” “built,” or “invested in.” So far, so good: As long as the term is meant as a deliberately nebulous reference to all the myriad things that make organizations run, it does its sloppy job reasonably well.

(Yet even then, the word invokes the strange metaphor of a jug or canister, whose “capacity” is measured by its ability to hold whatever is dumped into it. Is this really the image we want for high-performing organizations? But never mind.)

The problem is that CAPACITY is not content to halt demurely at the border between generalities and specifics. Even when a writer is trying to describe specific characteristics of organizations, CAPACITY often shows up as if it were denoting something in particular. One paper, for example, notes that an organization “lacks the capacity to manage so many projects at once.” Meaning what, exactly? There are not enough people to do all the managing? The people don’t have the technology to handle information on all their projects? Or the people and technology aren’t working efficiently, and need better procedures? Any of those would be an interesting point, but each is quite a different point. And CAPACITY doesn’t actually express any of them. Worse, by seeming sophisticated, the word may fool people into believing they’ve been told something.

Often, the writer who uses CAPACITY genuinely doesn’t know what an organization’s problem really is. In a proposal to examine the problems and make recommendations, for example, it is more than reasonable to admit that fact. “There seems to be a problem of capacity here,” a frank paper might conclude, “but the contents of that problem are unknown and need to be studied.” Fine – when couched in that kind of honest uncertainty, the word is mostly unobjectionable. But when it appears to imply something specific (an act of imposture of which the word is constantly guilty), it ought to be deleted and replaced with honest, old-fashioned terms like “staffing,” “record-keeping,” “management” (or the specialized younger sibling “information management”), or something on that order.

3 Comments

  1. Kim PetersonKim Peterson03-10-2013

    Still not entirely sure what is meant by “capacity” from a non-profit consultant’s perspective. Any more clarity with simple language would be appreciated.

  2. Tony ProscioTony Proscio03-13-2013

    There is already an entry on “capacity” in the Jargon Finder, and I’ve written about it elsewhere as well. I worry, sometimes, that if I bang on about it any more, I will be considered nothing more than a crank, a notorious malcontent — like the guy in Massachusetts who sends postcards to every media outlet that uses the term “nor’easter,” complaining (quite correctly) that the word is phony and bears no relation to the actual usage of New Englanders, sailors, or anyone other than weather forecasters. His sad case proves that even a perfectly accurate argument, if made too insistently, can reap a harvest of derision. I fear I’m on the same path.

    Then comes a note, as happened recently, from someone who says, “I still don’t get what ‘capacity’ is supposed to mean.” And suddenly I feel like Popeye with the spinach.

    The reason people have trouble understanding what “capacity” means — and I’m among those people — is that in philanthropy, the word is a great, bulging grab-bag of different meanings, many of them unrelated to one another. The only way to understand how most foundation people use “capacity” is to recognize that the word is defined solely by what it does not mean. When people talk about making grants for “capacity,” they mean that they are not making grants for organizations’ regular activities. They are not helping soup kitchens ladle soup; they are not helping art galleries display art; they are not helping laboratories conduct experiments.

    Instead, they are giving money and paying consultants to help the kitchens and galleries and labs operate better. They might be paying for financial management software and for some training in how to use it. They might be paying for a couple of extra fundraisers to bring in more cash. They might be paying for a second-in-command to help keep the CEO from burning out. Or they might even be paying for new offices, furniture, telecommunications equipment, a revamped website, direct advertising, HR policies, strategic and business planning, or debt restructuring. What do those things have in common? Hardly anything — except that they don’t include the actual soup, or paintings, or lab rats that constitute the grantees’ actual reason for existing.

    Of course, no foundation does all of that “capacity” stuff. In fact, at most foundations that are enamored of “capacity,” you’ll find that a few of these things are completely anathema (“We never pay for buildings!” or “We don’t support fundraising!” — every place has its own list of no-nos). But other items on the list are golden (“Every organization should have a business plan!” “The greatest need in the nonprofit world is for better technology!”). The point is: Every foundation’s definition of “capacity” is different, and one foundation’s Capacity Silver Bullet is another one’s Waste of Money.

    So how can you possibly know what any particular person means when using this overstuffed suitcase of a word? Forget it. You can’t. And it’s sad to say, but in some cases, that lack of definition is precisely why people love the word. You can go to cocktail parties and affinity groups and funder collaboratives and proclaim that your program is devoted to Capacity-Building! and everyone will nod admiringly. Then you can go back to your office and do whatever it is you do. Unless you wrote a check to pay for for soup or paintings or lab rats that day, you probably did something that can pass for “capacity.”

    Mind you, it’s in the nature of jargon to slip past even the loosest boundaries of meaning. Someday, someone will probably argue — in fact, I bet it has already happened — that a soup kitchen’s “capacity” depends on its ability to buy soup. Or the proper “metric” of a gallery’s “capacity” is the number of works of art displayed. Eventually, by that route, they will end up arguing that even your grants for soup, paintings, and lab rats are actually … Capacity!

    At that point, the word will have reached the pinnacle of the Mount of Jargon: It will describe everything in the universe.

    There are a few other favorite grab-bag words in the foundation lexicon that are already close to that mountaintop. “Access” is probably the frontrunner, with “infrastructure” not far behind. There are entries on both of these words in the Jargon Finder. As with “capacity,” I have probably already made myself a crank on both subjects. Before I write anything more about them, I might be better off devoting my time to an entry on “nor’easter.”

    At least on that one, I’ll know I have an ally.

    • JMJM03-13-2013

      If this were a facebook post I’d hit the “like” button a billion times. The overuse of the word capacity is like nails on a chalkboard for me. Thank you for providing your thoughts.

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