Deserts and Dilettantes How to Engage the Right Capacity Builders Within Marketplace Extremes

Capacity builders provide invaluable support to foundations and nonprofits all over the world. While there are many providers doing good work with foundations and nonprofits, as the TCC Group identifies in Building the Capacity of Capacity Builders, quality and quantity problems within the capacity-builder marketplace also exist.

If you’re like those interviewed for this guide and believe, whenever possible, it’s better to hire local consultants to support capacity-building work, you’ve likely experienced the extremes of local nonprofit consulting marketplaces. Some regions and countries are nonprofit capacity-building consultant “deserts,” places with few who possess the skills and experience to work on capacity-building in general, much less within certain fields, or with groups that require a particular language or cultural proficiency. Then other markets are flooded with consulting “dilettantes,” those professionals who advise nonprofits on capacity-building and organizational development but have no firsthand background or experience from an on-the-ground perspective. As one funder bluntly said, “There are too many consultants who have run a nonprofit for two years, who then make exaggerated claims about what they did, and then, all of a sudden, they’re a management consultant.”

“While outside consultants can bring expertise that doesn’t exist locally, too often they end up doing more harm than good. And, these outside consultants aren’t cheap. Parachuting in talent can get awfully expensive.”

— Anonymous funder

Because these extremes exist, it can be hard to distinguish the high-quality capacity builders from the rest. For those who have experienced difficulty navigating local capacity-building marketplaces, here’s some advice from grantmaker colleagues on how to engage the right capacity builders.

Questions to Explore (or use to shape a request for proposal)

Before you engage any capacity builders, consider:

  • Overall, what are you trying to accomplish as a result of engagement with a capacity builder?
  • What expectations do you have for what will happen (e.g., in terms of activities, deliverables, outcomes)?
  • What type of expertise do you think is needed (e.g., more a generalist organizational development expert or a capacity builder with deep experience in one area)?
  • What’s the marketplace of capacity builders available in the region in which you’re seeking support and how do they match up with the scope of work you’re seeking?
  • Should the grantee (or grantees) be part of setting this scope and vetting who gets hired?

Once you’re considering potential capacity builders, ask each being considered:

  • What is your overall background and experience working on nonprofit capacity-building?
  • How well do you know the local context and issues facing this group of nonprofits? For example, whom have you worked with on capacity-building issues and on what kinds of capacity-building projects?
  • What scope of work do you recommend for this project?
  • What do you think are reasonable expectations for what capacity can be built given this scope?
  • How would you define the roles — of the grantee(s), the funder, the capacity builder — and boundaries between your work?

Once you’ve selected a capacity-building partner, determine:  

  • How will we work together — funder, capacity builder, grantee(s) — to execute the planned scope?
  • What are the best ways to ensure open communications while respecting boundaries in roles?
  • Who gets to decide what gets shared and with whom?
  • How and with whom will success be assessed and communicated?
  • How might you incentivize this capacity builder to participate in professional development and learning opportunities that build the local “bench strength” of capacity builders?

Seeking answers to these questions can help you better match individual capacity builders with specific assignments. You might also consider ways to “build the bench strength” of capacity builders, as some funders are doing.  

Ways Funders are Building Capacity-Building Bench Strength

Associations like the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers (NNCG) vet consultants and offer learning opportunities to strengthen the practice of their member consultants. Individual foundations are also taking steps to improve the quality and effectiveness of consulting provided to grantees.

  • How the Greater New Orleans Foundation has created educational opportunities for local consultants to improve their capacity-building consulting craft. LEARN MORE                    
  • How the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation has set up a network of consultants that are about collectively improving practice. LEARN MORE

“There are scores of generic capacity-building providers out there who may be very, very smart in technical assistance services, but if they’re matched with the wrong kinds of groups, they have no credibility and no ability to understand the particular challenges those groups face.”

— Anonymous funder

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by Candid Learning for Funders using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from Supporting Grantee Capacity.