How Can Your Foundation Build Its Knowledge on Capacity Building?

At most foundations, the levels of capacitybuilding skills and experience vary significantly because, as a number of funders put it, “Most foundations hire grantmaking staff more for their issue-based rather than their organizational development expertise.” And for foundations with few or no staff, the capacity is as good as those few people.

To build internal knowledge, some foundations are hiring organizational development experts who provide a variety of capacity-building supports, from assisting program officers in proposal review and site visits to directly coaching grantees. However, having in-house expertise is more the exception than the rule.

Some foundations have efforts underway to enhance grantmaking staff knowledge about how to approach certain capacity-building situations. For example, the Oak Foundation developed a due diligence tool on governance in response to concerns raised by program officers. “Everyone was talking about how the boards in Eastern Europe and Latin America and particular countries function differently,” says Adriana Craciun, senior advisor on capacity building and organizational development at the foundation. “And everyone had different expectations of what it means for nonprofits to have good governance and effective boards. While we continue to take into account the legislation in countries that impacts governance and the circumstances of the grantee and the country in which they operate, we decided to develop a common understanding of what good governance looks like. A consultant was brought in and a process was created for convening program officers across Oak’s different offices to share their concerns and pose questions like, ‘What are you asking your grantees about governance, and what documents are you looking at?’ This has helped program officers feel more confident when they make board-related capacity-building recommendations.”

Some foundations have the capacity to implement these kinds of formal knowledge development opportunities. Others don’t. There are ways to build knowledge less formally. Consider how to create spaces for informal discussions on topics like how traditional leadership models are changing, or how social finance could benefit nonprofits. Encourage staff individually to build their capacity-building knowledge. Bring staff together to share case studies where they can discuss different capacity-building scenarios and why some were more successful than others. Ask foundation infrastructure groups, like national and regional associations, affinity groups, or philanthropy support organizations to host funder dialogue on capacity-building topics. Attend a conference. Overall, consider what additional learning opportunities you could pursue to strengthen your staff members’ abilities to execute capacity building, including what might be opt-in versus a more required element of staff training.

We share a cautionary note. “Remember that good practice, such as in financial management and governance, isn’t always black and white,” said one interviewee. For example, a grassroots or emerging organization may not yet have what a foundation considers a “real” board, and in some countries, what is considered good governance or financial management practice seems sub-par to standards a foundation may want to set across its grantmaking portfolio. Nonprofits may be in legal compliance with regulatory practice, but a foundation may want to set a higher bar. Think about how to encourage foundation-wide dialogue that addresses these kinds of differences in consistent ways.

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.