Building Capacity, Building Change (WE Can Believe In)

April 10, 2010 11 Comments

Friends — I am asking you to help build my capacity to build our capacity to create the change we seek…. from the grassroots to the grasstops, and every village and hamlet in between. Last week, I  received an invitation to participate in a meeting in a few weeks on the federal government’s nonprofit capacity building efforts — at the White House!

south lawn of the white house

I’m very excited about this — and I want to carry forward the best thinking of our collective — all those who though this blog and elsewhere are part of IISC‘s thought leader networks.  (Eh….if you’re reading this — that would include YOU).

A bit of context:

Over the past year, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation consulted with leaders in the nonprofit sector and heard that while federal efforts on capacity building, while critically important, could be better —  more streamlined, more strategic, more coordinated.

As a result of these consultations,  they have launched an inter-agency working group on nonprofit capacity building and at an upcoming meeting, they have invited IISC along with many others help them think about the role of the federal government in supporting and strengthening the nonprofit sector.

These are the questions we will discuss. These are the questions I want your input on, so that I can feed it forward in our session and make an indelible mark that cannot be forgotten (help me shine, folks!!!). Okay — here goes:

·         How should the government define “capacity building” and what is its value-added in this space?
·         What are some successful capacity building efforts by government that should be replicated?
·         How can the government share the capacity-building load with other leading institutions in the sector?

I’m sure there will be plenty of non-profit people there who will give the run-of-the-mill answers and analysis.  Please share your (wild and crazy) wisdom and (out of the box) advocacies with me as you contemplate these questions. Sure, I will definitely try drift over to the Senate Building to shop Gibran’s World Cafe for the Senate idea.  But, Ive got to contribute first and foremost to the session that Ive been invited to attend, before wandering about The Hill!

What are your thoughts? Muse freely and fiercely on how the U.S.  government could really make a profound difference in building the capacity of the non-profit sector.  I’ll let you know how the meeting goes (April 19th), but first – set me up for success with your brilliance! (if email works better for you for any reason, please feel free to contact me at  Especially, in answer to question #2 above, please share your stories about what works!


  • Christian says:


    I think you’ll find this podcast relevant and insightful:

  • Thanks Christian! I will definitely check it out.

  • Christian says:

    What’s with the obsession with “capacity building?” Capacity for what?

  • Susan Wright says:

    Hello Melinda, congrats on the invite, very exciting. Rather than start with “how should…” consider a slight re-frame of “What can capacity building be for this government?” and “Where does “it’s” value intersect with the community in which it serves?”
    Look forward to hearing more about your experience and the outcomes.

  • @Christian – You’ll see that part of the discussion at the WH will be a definitional one, so Im supposing your question is one that is interesting to the govt folks as well. In a very rudimentary way, I think it would be to build, enhance, strengthen the abilities and development of those working in the social sector to achieve their missions. Capacity to accomplish their intended goals.

    @Susan Thanks Susan. Im interested. Can you say more about what youre thinking/meaning with the re-frame? Do you mean to approach it from the perspective of the administration’s goals for itself as it applies to capacity building?

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    What an adventure! I think it’s important to be sure that folks focus on both organizational and individual capacity to be effective in pursuing pro-social goals–not to get so wrapped up in building institutions (even community-based institutions) that we overlook the human beings whose lives are at the heart of the work. Back in the 90’s folks used community building as a platform for thinking about investing in the capacity of people to be effective agents of change in communities, and to cultivate relationships (social capital) that could support their success. Some of the more recent network talk echoes these same themes.

  • @CSP – Thanks! Love that perspective.

    Also, folks, I trained a Facilitative Leadership class last week at our offices, and asked them the same question. Their “brainstormed list” was as follows:
    -simplify reporting requirements
    – increase allocations of monies upfront (v. reimbursements)
    -grant college loan forgiveness for working in the NPsector
    -increase clarity of grant requirements and availability
    – support GOS
    – support diversity of upper level management in NPO sector
    -hold the stake for “family voice” and families
    – make civic education mandatory
    -encourage service learning in public service
    -encourage volunteering with NPs
    -encourage collaboration between NPOs
    -have a national service day
    -sponsor networking events between govt and NGOs
    -sponsor an on-line informational clearinghouse

  • This morning, for nearly 3 hours, about 45 folks from various capacity building organizations around the country gathered at the White House Conference Center (an annex of the White House, located across the street from it) to discuss ways in which the federal government can strengthen and support the NP sector. It was hosted by Joshua DuBois (WH Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships) and Sonal Shah (WH Ofc of Social Innovation and Civic Participation). To launch the conversation, Shah directed us to focus more on the strategic partnering and non-funding related aspects of the answers to our question, particularly because there’s not that much funding available to work with, and because that conversation is an on-going one. Instead, they, along with colleagues from various federal agencies that were gathered (many of the Faith Based Office) were interested to hear our thoughts on a definition of “capacity building” (there is no one definition within the government, and, we later learned, even among the sector), as well as to get our thinking on any unique role the government can and should play when it comes to supporting the work of the “third sector”. Before we launched into conversation, longtime friend of the IISC family Gretchen van der Veer grounded the conversation in the findings from previous convenings about NP capacity building in terms of what could be most strategic.

    The mix of items brought to the fore of the conversation included the government’s unique role (my contribution) as convener of diverse parts of the system (from capacity builders, to collabos between private, public and NP sectors, to affirming whats working on the local level), to helping the sector itself have conversations around shared definitions and strategies for advocacy vis a vis the legislature and overall sustainability issues. There was some attention of course paid to the idea of metrics and performance measurement, and ways in which the government itself can be an “agregator of agregators” when it comes to providing centralized information portals about best practices, opportunities, local resources, and capacity building programs.

    Most agreed that the highest leverage next steps would be for these conversations to continue. There was mention that more foundations presence would be welcome, due to the huge impact they have on the sector. Other next steps emerged as well.

    On the meeting design tip, however, I would love to have my hands at designing future of these convenings. With even a more diverse set of stakeholders around the table, and some creative design, I think there’s much more wisdom to be mined in terms of ways the sector can envision itself, progressively partner with the government, and pioneer cross-sectoral conversations about how best to solve our most intractable challenges of this century.

    Thanks for all of the ideas you all forwarded. They matter and they helped. In settings like these, there’s no substitute for having a clear sense of the unique perspective and experiences you bring to the table. As one who helps build the capacity of so many change agents across the spectrum of the sector, I know how important it is to have professional development, time and tools to get above the weeds (to think strategically, boldly, creatively), and how very far a bunch of mission-minded and resourced (not all with $$$$$) people can take a community/organization/region. Let’s keep our conversation going in all the ways that we do (on and off this blogsite, our hands to the plow and our hearts nourished. Thats how we’ll collectively change the way social change happens.

  • Andrea Nagel says:

    Thanks so much Melinda for participating in this gathering! I really appreciate your sharing the collective wisdom at that table and back with the rest of us!

  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Thanks Melinda for bringing our thinking forward in this space and also for your detailed request for input and report out as well. Great to hear that the conversation will continue. Here’s to an opportunity to help with the design next time!!

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