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Designing Transformative Communications Capacity Building Programs for Nonprofits

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Guest Post: Beth Kanter

Our interactive session at the Fall 2013 Communications Network Conference in New Orleans was a blend of content delivery and peer learning – a conversation about the value, different approaches and models, and best practices.  Betsey Russell captured the highlights of the content in this blog post, “Boosting Nonprofit Communication Capacity.”   A copy of our presentation and some of the takeaways follow.


Whether the model your foundation is using to help its grantees is a one-day master class or extended  program, in the end, success is about having participants apply what they’ve learned and make these new skills an organizational habit.  The tactics can include workshops, master classes expert consultants or peer learning.

We asked participants to do a “think and write”  and jot down one idea that resonated before facilitating a grand synthesis of what we learned about designing more impactful capacity building programs for grantees.  Here’s what we learned:

1.     Foundation Staff Involvement

How closely should a program officer work with the capacity builder to get the best results?      It is important for foundation staff to be involved in the design of the program, working collaboratively to identify outcomes, have check-ins along the way, and a dialogue at the end on improving the learning and skills transfer.  It is also important to honor readiness and vet participants carefully, not just select “favorite grantees.”

While it is important for grantees to understand the funder’s expectations,  funders do not want to be too hands-on – and allow for a safe space for the consultant to work with the grantees.   It also important to communicate clearly to grantees that the invitation to participate is optional and that they should not just sign on because they want to “please the funder.”

If your foundation is just getting starting in the delivery of capacity building programs,  make sure that there is an internal champion for the program and get others involved.

2.     Vet, Vet, Vet 

Identifying which organizations and who should participant from the organizations is a critical design decision and can make or break a capacity building program.   Regardless of the subject matter or specific skills, it is important to have the executive director sign off, literally with a letter of agreement, acknowledging that they will allow staff time to participate and practice skills.  It is better to have a team from the organization participate, so that knowledge can be transferred to others, and that team should include individuals whose jobs are connected to the outcomes of the program.  Also,  it avoid having a lost investment if a participant changes jobs during the program.

When recruiting, screening, and vetting,  it is important that the capacity builder have an in-depth assessment technique that can accurately diagnose the organization’s current level of practice – as well as strengths and weaknesses.  This can help guide the curriculum, support peer exchanges, and also serve as a baseline for program evaluation.

3.     Instructional Design Matters

Transformative capacity building is not solely about the expertise of the consultant that you are working with, although that is important.  The curriculum and content has to support your overall outcomes for the program which will surely be about participants acquiring and applying skills and knowledge to reach a higher level outcome.    Look for a clear theory of change in the design document – what is the pathway from skill acquisition and application?  Is it a financial result – increased fundraising?  Is it engagement?  Is it policy change?  Make sure you can connect and align the dots.

Make sure you review a design document and pay careful attention to the learning opportunities for participants outside of the formal meeting times.  Are there exercises, project based or action learning or is it a content dump?

One-on-one consulting and coaching can be expensive.  How is the coaching and consulting being used to help the organizations gain the skills and being able to sustain them?  A good capacity building program allows participants to become more independent, not dependent on experts.

4.     One Size Does Not Fit All

Transformative capacity building programs can be scaled – they don’t need to be six-month long programs with intensive content and consult coaching. That can be an expensive investment.  Shorter programs with lighter or less intensive interactions can also work.    Eva Penar, marketing director for the Chicago Trust, described their nonprofit technology capacity building model that included a one-day workshop that launched a monthly meetings for a community of practice.  Working in partnership with NTEN, the national association for nonprofit techies,  was an efficient way for her foundation to launch and sustain a capacity building program.

5.     Using “Learning Analytics”

Don’t just be satisfied with a survey at the end asking participants to rate the experience, logistics, or presenters.   While you can learn a lot about how they applied what they learned, it is important to also use pre/post surveys to measure that transformative of skills and capacity.      It is also important to use “learning analytics,” data that helps you measure participants’ progress along the way.  This can help you make midcourse improvements to the program and get to better results.

What are the most important things you need to think about when designing and delivering a capacity building program for your foundation’s grantees?   What have you learned about what works?


Beth Kanter is a master trainer, author, and blogger who works with foundations and nonprofits to design, deliver, and evaluate capacity building programs.

2 Comments

  1. Joleen OngJoleen Ong10-16-2013

    I’m glad to see this topic being discussed!

    For many nonprofits, I’m sure the idea of getting funding for transformative capacity building is beyond what they would typically expect. I’m curious how different foundations assess nonprofit readiness with communications during the grant application process.

    These five key takeaways are spot on. I really resonated with #3 and #4 – how can the skills learned in a classroom capacity building workshop be applied, identifying what the theory of change is in the design document, and customizing it for the grantee and their audiences.

    Also – thanks for highlighting the Chicago Community Trust’s partnership with NTEN!

  2. […] missed, but heard a lot about Beth Kanter’s session on capacity building and training of nonprofits. I followed the many tweets of her comment that the goal in training should be to be more the […]

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