Power: Do…

Take an “opt-in” approach

Capacity building works best in partnership. Funders bring money and perspective to the table, but we heard, overwhelmingly, it’s best not to tell grantees “you must do capacity building.” Make it their choice but provide input into their decision-making process. Help them see how you and others may view their capacity-building issues so they can make informed decisions about whether or not to tackle them. For example, for a grantee that currently has no strategic plan and limited capacity to evidence programmatic impact, one funder suggested, “Talk with them about how not being able to share a sense of their strategic direction or demonstrate outcomes may affect them long-term.” Help grantees in situations like this to consider, how can your organization know and show you’re making a difference if it can’t set goals and then assess for impact? Then while grantees shouldn’t feel pressured to do things just to please donors, help them understand how not paying attention to planning and assessment can limit their ability to get funding. In today's philanthropic sector donors, especially institutional ones, often require strategic plans and some ability to demonstrate impact.

Once a grantee has decided to undertake capacity building, consider ways to ensure they play a leading role in determining what the capacity building will look like. Funders encouraged this approach even in situations where a foundation is offering capacity-building workshops, trainings, or peer learning opportunities. Bottom line: “Let them help design what the capacity building will be so they own it,” says Liz Sak, executive director of the Cricket Island Foundation. “That goes a long way toward reducing the power dynamic. If they feel like they really have a say and they do really have a say, that feels very powerful.”

Bring in other stakeholders to help balance power

Foundations hire capacity-building consultants for their expertise, but also to serve as “neutral” voices who can create safe spaces. Grantees can sometimes feel more comfortable sharing openly with consultants than with funders because, as one funder put it, “Consultants are more like therapists and we’re more like mothers, and, face it, we don’t feel free to say some things to our mothers.” Foundations with in-house organizational development staff sometimes bring these “expert” voices into negotiations with grantees on capacity-building– related funding. Some foundations, such as the Open Society Foundations, are also experimenting with connecting their administrative staff, like financial managers, with grantees to help them with skill building. For foundations that may not be able to involve a third party, consider if a board member or even another staff member can play a role.

Define clearly who will be part of the capacity-building conversation and who will have access to information about the grantee’s capacity

When funders talk with grantees about capacity building, they often cover sensitive topics, such as governance and financial practice, which grantees don’t necessarily want others to know about. When assessments, proposals, and reports get produced, who sees them inside your foundation and beyond can become a big grantee concern, too.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad to have people beyond program officers sharing knowledge about grantee capacity building. Many foundations take a team-based approach and sharing capacity-building information can help that team make better decisions to support their grantees. However, interviewees advised being up front with grantees about whom they’d like to join in the capacity-building conversation, why those stakeholders should be engaged, and the extent of the distribution network for anything written up. For example, a nonprofit executive director has the right to know the answer to the question, “If I have a conversation with my program officer and share details about challenges I have experienced with my board chair, will that information be passed along to the foundation president?”

Grantees should also know how information might get shared with others outside the foundation. One foundation has gone so far as to clarify intellectual property issues of this content when produced by consultants. “We came up with a policy statement that we adopted. It protects us, it protects the nonprofit, and it makes it very clear that while we receive a copy, it’s the assessed organization’s intellectual property.”

While some foundations request the products consultants produce, others say, “We don’t require that what consultants deliver to grantees be shared with us.” Drawing the lines of who’s engaged in the capacity-building dialogue and who gets to see what is important. Without them, the boundaries of access and influence can become blurred. As another interviewee noted, “Sometimes consultants try to talk with me and I have to push them away and say, ‘I’m not the client. You shouldn’t be telling me these things.’ ” Without clarity of boundaries, grantmakers can be unprepared to react in these types of situations that inevitably come up.

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.