Philanthropy Northwest recently commissioned “An Assessment of Capacity Building in Washington State.” Completed by consultants at the Giving Practice and completed in December 2009, the report presents a “nonprofit ecosystem” framework for thinking about nonprofit capacity building, outlining eight essential elements of a resilient nonprofit ecosystem. The report is well worth checking out, and presents some good information about the varying capacity building needs in different parts of Washington State.
The report got me thinking, along the following lines: the researchers conducted fifty interviews, but did not include private consultants in the pool. Why not? Don’t we have an important perspective on capacity building? Yes, we do! In fact, I have for some time felt that private consultants have some important things to say about capacity building, but are rarely asked to weigh in. Here are some of the reasons I think consultants should be included in future conversations:
- Like funders, we work with many different organizations, and can see patterns, highlight best practices and spot trends across the sector.
- Unlike funders, our clients confide in us.
- We are mission-based businesses—many of us care deeply about strengthening the social sector and have thought deeply about how to deliver capacity building in an effective manner.
- As one colleague put it, “We do the work.”
So then, after huffing about briefly, it came to me. The real question: if they asked us what we think, what would we say? This is a really interesting question, and it has taken me some time to think about it (and doubtless I will continue to reflect). I am also grateful that my professional development group was willing to engage in a conversation with me on this great question. Together, we confirmed my hunch that consultants have a valuable perspective to share. Here are a few highlights from our conversation and from my own thinking:
- We would love to engage with the question of how best to serve rural communities. The Nonprofit Ecosystem report alludes to the differing needs of rural and urban-based nonprofit organizations, but doesn’t really detail the differences. We know as consultants that our rural clients are different, and we have learned to adapt and provide culturally competent services. For example, Susan Howlett has crisscrossed the state and region, drawing crowds in rural areas because she understands the challenges rural nonprofits face. Rural areas are truly resource-poor, so development of a scarcity mentality is understandable. Coming in and telling them to just “try harder” to raise funds isn’t helpful.
- We value and appreciate cultural competency. In fact, we suggest elevating this principle as an essential element of a resilient nonprofit ecosystem. We think it is equally if not more important than technology, and should be called out.
- Not only would we appreciate being a part of the conversation, we see a great need for funders and nonprofit leaders to dialogue together. In past years, Philanthropy Northwest and Puget Sound Grantwriters Association have partnered to allow some dialogue. Recently, this partnership has languished. Gains made in the past by nonprofit folks, such as the PNGF (now Philanthropy Northwest) common grant application, have fallen by the wayside.
- We see the pain caused by inadequate investment in capacity building, professional development and infrastructure/general operations. For this reason, it is encouraging to see funders engaging in this issue and trying to educate their peers about the importance of capacity building to a healthy nonprofit sector. Another good example of an educational piece for funders along these lines is The Nonprofit Starvation Cycle. Hopefully, this trend will continue and focus on the “overhead ratio” will be reduced.
I’m excited to continue this conversation—with colleagues, clients and philanthropists. I hope the Nonprofit Ecosystem Report is just the beginning!