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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.


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