Lessons from the Street: Capacity Building and Replication
6. Lessons for Capacity Building Technical Assistance
Based on this experience with capacity building technical assistance, we learned the following lessons:
1. The Foundation's technical assistance model worked, and can be improved;
Consider each lesson:
Lesson 1: The Foundation's Technical Assistance Model Worked, And Can Be Improved
The primary technical assistance inputs the Foundation deployed were needs assessments, workplan development, national group workshops, one-on-one training back home and provision of grants and other resources. This formula was successful, for the most part. In terms of refinements, more funds are needed -- to increase the number of technical assistance staff making these inputs, lengthen the time they can spend with any one site, increase the resources directly granted to sites and allow for more systematic evaluation. The technical assistance and training, we found, should be done by peers who have both formal training and practical experience. It should be practical, immediately applicable to solving problems and complemented by step-by-step follow-up and written instructions. Trainees then should become trainers back home.
Our inputs were directed to technical assistance in the following areas: board development, fundraising, financial management, organizational management (including evaluation), personnel management, staff development and communications (including leadership development). We learned that technical assistance in all of these areas can create positive change -- including technical assistance in evaluation and in communications, areas not always covered in the field of nonprofit capacity building. Our nonprofit organizations strongly felt that every one of these technical assistance areas impacts on every other area. For example, board development facilitates fundraising. Unless programs are well managed financially, they are unlikely to be successful, which makes fundraising and board recruitment more difficult. Skill with media can lead to more visibility and hence income. The income can be used to hire more and better trained staff. Better prepared staff can increase the likelihood of positive program outcomes, which a savvy communications office can publicize in ways that attract new board members. If the new board members are selected carefully, they will bring in ideas for new programs and will access new funding. The lesson is that a well developed technical assistance workplan must make these linkages. Funders need to avoid restrictions on technical assisters and nonprofit organizations making such linkages.
We were almost always successful in using our technical assistance inputs to create improvements in skills, knowledge and action by grassroots nonprofit organizations. The degree of success varied considerably, but, for any one organization, we always had an example or two of success -- or more.
There were good examples of measurable outcomes (like more funds actually raised and improved performance of youth served by a program) but they were not as consistently apparent as the examples of improvements in skills, knowledge and action by the nonprofit organization. In other words, we found changes in proximate variables easier to come by than changes in outcome (or dependent) variables.
We concluded that more time with each organization -- twenty-four to thirty-six months -- and more resources invested probably would have resulted in significantly more measurable outcomes. We also believe that the Foundation needs to extend its training sessions on evaluation. Our evaluation training sessions received high ratings from participants.1 Foundation staff thought the trainer was highly creative. The lesson was not to improve the workshop, but to repeat its message more often, in individual and group settings. Too many grassroots organization staff members still seem to believe that "success" is at hand if there are demonstrable improvements in their skills, knowledge and action. The continuing disconnect -- the failure to translate organizational improvements into measurable outcomes -- is, perhaps, not surprising. The disconnect is all too apparent in the context of national private and public policy in America that seeks inner city solutions. For example, in the case of "welfare reform," "success" has been claimed by some on the basis of reduced welfare roles. But taking people off welfare rolls is an organizational action. "Welfare" originally was designed as an intervention to reduce child poverty. Hence, the outcome measure for "welfare reform" is reduced child poverty. Yet child poverty has not been reduced by much over recent years, and it is difficult to causally link the "reform" to any consequent changes in child poverty. The child poverty rate in America for youngsters aged five years and under is about 23 percent.2
Whether or not one agrees with the Foundation's specific methods and precise conclusions, there can be little disagreement on the need for this type of capacity building and on the benefits that can accrue.
Lesson 2: Future Progress Will Be A Function of Adequate Resources, Regional Clustering And Distance Learning
In terms of optimal cost/benefit ratios, we concluded the Foundation could create more change with a given level of resources if we selected pre-takeoff organizations in the three-to-five-year-old range that had some solid capacity in place and operated with budgets roughly between in the $150,000 and $600,000. With such groups, there often was an enthusiasm to learn, a commitment to stay with the technical assistance over many months and a desire to pursue multiple technical assistance linkages.
Especially when we found multiple areas of interrelated need, periods of assistance shorter than eighteen months did not necessarily prove to be cost-effective. We concluded that at least twenty-four months and, ideally, thirty-six months, were appropriate goals for capacity building technical assistance.
We needed technical assisters with specialities in board development, fundraising, financial management, organizational management, evaluation, personnel management, staff development, communications and leadership development. Sometimes a technical assister or trainer was competent in more than one of these areas -- for example, organizational management as well as board development. More likely, different areas of specialty meant different specialists. Funds always were scarce. Hence, we needed many consultants and persons on staff who could work part time on a specialty. We needed, as well, an overall program director to administer a specific cohort of sites and the grants that were financing it. Through trail and error, the rule of thumb that evolved was one project director (who also had at least one area of substantive expertise) and two full time equivalent technical assisters/trainers for every ten sites.
In the future, we recommend that each grassroots organization receive a discretionary grant of $10,000 or more upon entrance into a capacity building technical assistance program. Such a grant will immediately establish the seriousness of a commitment to change and will allow local grassroots organization staff greater clout in effecting change. Grants of this kind are a much needed financial boost to many grassroots organizations -- which are being asked to make major investments of time without immediate benefit.
For a given amount of funding and a given number of sites, we found that, unsurprisingly, clustering sites together in a region created economies of scale. It was easier to share a given level of technical assistance and training than when we spread sites across the nation. For a single technical assistance organization to cover the entire nation, we suggest at least four regional clusters (Northeast, South, Midwest and West) -- with the full time equivalent of two assisters/trainers living in a region for every ten groups that are trained in the region. To coordinate such a regional effort at the national level, we estimate that one coordinator/administrator, along with one support staffer, might work best for every forty groups (that is, for every cohort of ten groups in each of four regions). Each region could, in turn, create more decentralized assistance in concentrations of greatest need, like offices in major cities.
Alternatively, grantmakers can fund nonprofit technical assistance intermediary organizations to concentrate in specific regions -- with the same ratio of assisters/trainers to sites that we have suggested. Given that thousands of nonprofit groups are in need of capacity building technical assistance, any serious effort to provide sufficient assistance requires both national and regional intermediaries. But there should be uniform standards -- in terms of quality and quantity of staff and consultants, ratios of assisters/trainers to sites, inputs provided by assisters, areas of assistance covered and length of time assisted.
So stated, capacity building for all nonprofit groups around the country that could benefit would seem a daunting endeavor. Far more resources would be necessary than the private and public sectors presently are prepared to provide. However, we believe that there is a potential breakthrough that might facilitate a feasible long run strategic plan by a consortium of funders to provide quality capacity building technical assistance and training to all nonprofit groups that could benefit from it.
The potential breakthrough is distance learning. There is a wave of hyperactivity at present to create for-profit distance learning. Web sites are being created by entities like Global Education Network, Kapan College.com and Unext.com. The Dean of Harvard Business School has predicted, "This technology allows someone who is used to teaching 100 students to teach a million students." Unext.com is investing $100M to develop a full range of academic courses over the Internet. The company has signed deals with Columbia, Stanford, Carnegie- Mellon University, and the University of Chicago -- promising them revenue from the course materials they develop and granting them Unext shares. Unext envisions a world where anyone can begin a course in, say, basic finance, at any time of the year, from any location. To make a profit, the company will need thousands of people engaged in a particular course at any one time. Unext believes that the opportunity to take courses designed by elite schools will attract such numbers. Company projections suggest that, if Unext is correct, the University of Chicago could earn $20 million in royalties alone from the venture over the next five years.3
But why make elite universities richer? Why think in terms of for-profit models? To create greater equality of opportunity, more promising is the recent donation of $100 million by high tech billionaire Michael Saylor as down payment toward creating an online university that he says will offer an "Ivy league-quality" education to anyone in the world -- free.4
Traditional funders and especially new grant makers with endowments from high technology fortunes need to support a series of demonstrations to learn just how far we can go and how successful we can be with nonprofit distance learning in capacity building and replication with pre-takeoff groups. Our experience suggests that hands-on, in-person training will continue to be necessary, at least in the short run, but that committed grassroots organizations can make great progress using clear, well-packaged, peer-based distance learning training that fits their busy schedules. The W. K. Kellogg Foundation's initiative, Building Bridges Between Practice and Knowledge in Nonprofit Management Education, plans on-line courses in nonprofit management. It is a step in the right direction. So is the on-line course being designed by the Development Training Institute for community development corporations.5 An ambitious distance learning initiative for capacity building to scale also can be packaged as one venue to help bridge the digital divide -- because state-of-the-art computers will be needed by all participating grassroots organizations.
Lesson 3: Resources Build More Capacity Than Rhetoric
Specifically, we have concluded that while the notions of "volunteerism," "self-sufficiency" and "empowerment" can be useful as tools in or descriptors of capacity building, they also can be used as smoke screens to hide the need for more resources.
For example, a highly publicized 1997 national summit on volunteerism was viewed with skepticism by many observers. The summit was held in Philadelphia. At the time of the summit, the New York Times interviewed residents in the impoverished Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia (where the Foundation had financed a successful capacity building replication). One resident thought the summit was a bit "naive" because "you need a certain expertise among the volunteers, and in communities like Logan, people don't have the expertise." The director of a nonprofit community program in the neighborhood observed, "Volunteering is really good, but people need a program to volunteer for, and in order to do that, you have to have dollars." Pablo Eisenberg, former Executive Director of the Center for Community Change and now a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute, concluded that "no matter whether you attract lots of volunteers, money is still the most important ingredient in reducing poverty and helping poor people. You need money even to organize volunteers." An article in Youth Today on the national organization created at the Philadelphia summit to promote volunteerism, among other goals, asked whether the organization was "delivering for youth or fatally flawed." The executive director of one Midwest non-profit community group concluded that, after two years, the new organization was "long on talk and hoopla and short on doing." Although the organization promotes a vision of change in the inner city with people working for free, as volunteers, the New York Times reported that thepresident and CEO of the group was being paid $250,000 per year.6
Or take an international comparison. In the early 1990s, America won the war in the Persian Gulf because of large numbers of well trained professional staff, large numbers of well trained support staff and a huge amount of expensive, high quality equipment. The American force had built a strong capacity to fulfill its mission. Yet, when it comes to investments in the inner city and the truly disadvantaged, we often are told that there is not enough money for adequate and adequately paid professional staff, adequate and adequately paid support staff, and good equipment -- like computers and facilities in pubic schools and at the headquarters of the inner-city, grassroots community-based non-profit organizations that are responsible for a great deal of what works. Instead, we are told that, for example, a grassroots community group ought to get initial grants from the public and private sectors. Then it ought to convert into "self-sufficient" operations, in part with the help of (often poorly trained) volunteers. Volunteers should be combined with "partnerships" and "coalition building" among other financially competing and often penurious groups in the inner city. This, we are told, will lead to the "empowerment" of our neighborhoods and our schools, less injustice and more domestic tranquility. But it hasn't usually worked that way -- as anyone who has labored in the trenches knows.
The lesson is that capacity building needs to invest in human and physical capital to create enduring outcomes.
Lesson 4: Mechanical Change Is Easier Than Behavioral Change
Mechanical change tends to be rather straightforward. You have policies or you don't. The policies are effective or they’re not. Such change is relatively easy to make -- once the key executives involved realize that the change improves their operations and makes them appear more efficient.
Behavioral change tends to focus on people, rather than on systems. Therefore, it often requires altering long-held beliefs and "ways of doing things" that, however time-consuming or inefficient, are nonetheless "comfortable? and highly resistant to alteration. This is the form of change that can underlie resistance to seemingly "easy" mechanical changes and delay or even sabotage them. It also may explain the continual delays, postponements and obfuscations that prevent "getting things done." Such behavior seems to be associated with people who have been with their organizations for a long time and have become accustomed to doing things in a specific way.
Facilitating mechanical change can be as simple as providing an organization with a prototype of personnel policies or board procedures developed by such organizations as the National Center for Nonprofit Boards. The grassroots nonprofit organizations that we assisted were able to recognize fairly quickly how making these changes would benefit them and be in their own best interests.
Behavioral change takes time. It takes time to recognize the need for such change, leadership or decision-making style. When the need for change is recognized, it may require a degree of coddling and nagging, or both, by the technical assister to get the person to begin the change. It takes more time for these changes to be implemented, and, once begun, tends to require continuous tweaking. Such change requires a tremendous amount of trust between the technical assister and the client grassroots organization staff and trustee, because a great deal of personal power and prestige are involved in these changes. One key element in establishing this level of trust is the clear expertise, professional and interpersonal skills of the technical assister. Senior technical assisters clearly are required.
The following are two examples of what we mean by mechanical and behavioral change and how they are brought about:Agency 1
The chair of the board of directors of one the of the organizations we assisted had been associated with the organization for nearly fifteen years, always as a member of the board. Some of our most important recommendations for this agency addressed the functioning of the board. After observing his interaction with the board for about six months, we concluded that it was the chair's own attitudes and behaviors that contributed significantly to the problems we identified. For example, he did not assign duties to board committees or other officers, except the treasurer. He "tailored" information to the board, delayed appointments and otherwise limited the board's ability to do its work, preferring instead to undertake the bulk of the work himself, in part because "the board doesn't do anything." Because of a small staff, the chair volunteered to "help" the executive director with fundraising and public relations. In both cases, he overstepped his bounds and became more of a nuisance than a help.
It took nearly eighteen months, several one-on-one conversations between Foundation staff and the chair, and two meetings among Foundation staff, the chair and the executive director to make the necessary changes in the chair's behavior -- that then allowed for changes in other areas.Agency 2
We worked with one agency about a year and helped update its personnel policies as well as some financial and administrative procedures. Yet certain personnel problems persisted. One was a very serious problem with a financial manager. An equally serious legal problem was associated with another staff person. Although the revised personnel policies clearly dealt with such issues, it took two months and a steady deterioration of the problems for the executive director, in highly personal discussions with Eisenhower Foundation staff, to recognize that the problems were not being solved because of what the executive director described as her style of management. That style was to turn the troubled employee into a social service "client" of the agency, rather than to face a disciplinary problem to be solved. When the problems caused by these employees simply could not be ignored any further, the consultant and the executive director were able to develop scenarios that helped find solutions.
The lesson is that sufficient technical resources over sufficient time are needed to facilitate the more time consuming behavioral change.
Lesson 5: Beware Of Technical Assister Syndrome
However, we know of and have worked with successful nonprofit organizations, national and local, where the operating head, often the founder, has a powerful vision, and where that CEO is careful not to blur the vision by losing control to staff or by acquiescing to a board on which trustees set all the priorities -- priorities that can be based on financial security rather than on the cutting edge perspective that originally framed the mission. In such organizations, trustees typically join out of respect for the operating head and the founding vision -- often working one-on-one with the CEO on fundraising and idea generation, rather than forming a rigid structure of permanent committees. Such organizations typically have concern over succession of leadership after the CEO retires or otherwise departs, and may put into motion a strategic plan for passing the baton. But they are aware that successors to founding visionaries can be less passionate with the founding vision and less skilled in carrying it out. They are aware that, when the founder leaves, the organization can lose its cutting edge and can become a board-led and corporate-leaning enterprise. Given these possibilities, such organizations do not discount the option of simply closing down. We had a good run, they argue, and we made an impact. Perhaps we can get the right visionary to carry on, but, if not, it may be better to declare victory, terminate operations and support other, newly emerging visionaries with fires in their bellies -- rather than for the organization to continue to "do good" but as a shadow of its former self.
For example, in one nonprofit organization we examined, a group of trustees tried to reduce control by the CEO. The plan was to relocate the nonprofit within a larger nonprofit, lower the visibility of the organization and increase the power of a wealthy trustee with strong corporate ties. The plan was defeated by other trustees, who argued for higher visibility and a continuation of the founding vision, as articulated by the CEO. The organization went on to impact policy in ways not envisioned by the corporate trustees who wanted lower visibility and encapsulation of the organization within a larger entity.
During the ten years of our capacity building assistance, a related experience was a visit from a consultant of a major foundation -- who wanted to know our opinion of a major national nonprofit organization. We thought that the nonprofit had lost its cutting edge, in part because success in corporate fund raising had made it more reluctant to speak out. The visiting foundation representative said that concern over lost vision was precisely the reason that person was making the inquiry.
What are the lessons here for capacity building technical assistance? As they diagnose an organization, capacity building technical assisters should not, we believe, necessarily push a for-profit corporate model of board-dominated respectability that emasculates the mission and blurs the vision. Even with imperfections, some visionary-led enterprises might better be left alone. Or capacity building assistance might be directed at strengthening such organizations, but without the accompanying dogma that CEO control must be relinquished or at least modified in for-profit, corporate-resonating ways.
Another implication is not to short change technical assistance to very young groups that are several years from pre-takeoff -- especially when such groups are run by passionate, powerful, intelligent new visionaries who also have some potential skill in management, or a sense that they need to hire persons who do have that skill. If we do not disapprove of some groups having a good run and then going out of business, rather than diluting their essence, then we must better promote a constant supply of new visionary organizations to take their place, engage the struggle and proceed beyond. The Foundation's experience has been that one-on-one coaching with founding visionaries of very small organizations often is the most effective venue for such initial technical assistance.
As for the other end of the spectrum -- very mature organizations that have taken off -- funders and assisters need to ask whether some are worth financial support, or worth the training in those areas of capacity building where they still need development. For example, we have worked with one very large national nonprofit youth organization that has, in our view, stagnated and done relatively little, given its considerable potential to engage the inner city and the truly disadvantaged.
Lesson 6: Funders And Assisters Need To Better Understand The
Power of Communications As Capacity Building
Grassroots nonprofit leaders learn very quickly and, as natural advocates, show great skill, for example on the electronic media. Many have never thought of enhancing communications capacity as a means to improve fundraising, through greater public visibility.
The need for media savvy by grassroots nonprofits also is immense because they are responsible for so many child development, youth development, public school reform, job training and placement, economic development, community-based banking and problem-oriented, community equity (not zero tolerance) policing programs that work. Yet most Americans are not aware of what works -- because it is poorly communicated.
To begin to balance the media playing field at the same time that we develop institutional capacity, thousands of grassroots groups need the kind of Televison School and strategic communications training discussed in Chapter 5. Public service and related announcements on what works can be part of such a grassroots media capacity building strategy. We have seen little scientific evidence that public service announcements by well-heeled national nonprofit organizations have had much of an impact. Instead, we propose funding and evaluating alliances of local nonprofit organizations -- to tailor local what works messages that are delivered by local youth. To employ the previously demonized as the message senders conveys a powerful message in and of itself. Here the model is the youth media enterprise of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Boston, which already has been evaluated as successful, as part of a more comprehensive strategy. The Collaborative's positive messages, by and about youth, have been seen and heard locally in Boston and distributed nationally through Blockbuster Video. The Collaborative has the capacity, through its youth, to build on the peer training it already undertakes with nonprofit organizations that receive Foundation assistance.8 One potential source for funding a grassroots based organization strategy is the Office of National Drug Control Policy, with its substantial media budget.
An interrelated lesson is that considerable potential exists to enhance the communications capacity of grassroots organizations through community web sites. When he resigned from CBS, Bill Moyers called for a return to Tom Paine-like pamphleteering.9 Community web sites are perhaps the most cost-effective information age ways to achieve this end. Such sites can link up local nonprofit organizations with local citizens -- who can help to communicate what works to local public and private leaders. The outcomes of town meetings can be summarized on community web sites. Plans for upcoming town meetings can be communicated. Each community web site can serve as an ongoing town meeting -- continuing to debate reform, discuss budget priorities, organize campaigns for more televison news on what works, and generate new, proactive communication strategies. There already is evidence that many people want to convene with their geographic neighbors, both online and in person, and community-based web sites linked to town meetings can do just that. Partial existing models include community web sites in locations as diverse as San Francisco, California; Blacksburg, Virginia; and London, England. For example, in London, Microsoft supplied computers, Internet access and a way for persons in specific communities to communicate with one another online.10 Much more is possible, we believe, and it can help reduce the digital divide -- as it builds grassroots capacity and advocates for what works.
Nationally, nonprofit capacity building technical assistance organizations need to construct much more sophisticated web sites than at present. The national sites should summarize what works, and doesn't work, based on scientific evaluation. (The Foundation's web site, www.eisenhowerfoundation.org, is beginning to do this.) They should tailor much of their information to local, grassroots inner city nonprofit groups. The groups, and especially the inner city youth they serve, should be taught how to access what works information and how to use it for building their capacities and advocating for what works. The national sites should provide a network of distance learning.
Lesson 7: We Need To Reorganize and Better Fund National Nonprofit
One way is for major private and public funders to expand their in-house technical assistance staffs. An advantage is that well-endowed foundations and government agencies have, relatively speaking, more financial security than nonendowed nonprofit assistance providers. The implication is that at least the potential exists, under wise leadership, to upgrade and then maintain the level of in-house assistance and training in major foundations and government agencies.
Perhaps more feasibly, foundations and governments can simply increase contract funding to for-hire consulting organizations, nonprofit and for-profit. The strength and weakness of such contractors is that, relatively speaking, they have a technical mission -- to deliver contract deliverables as specified in the procurement, professionally and on time -- without, necessarily, a vision of what America can be that engages untidy issues of democracy.
There is a third way -- to reorganize national nonprofit groups that agree with the positions set forth in this report. Figure 3 suggests a model organizational plan for national nonprofits that share our views.11 To address all that we have proposed, national nonprofit organizations should, we believe, retain more traditional capacities -- including policy research and development, fundraising and technical assistance. But, especially when it comes to technical assistance on communicating what works, such national nonprofits should create sophisticated offices for marketing and communications, for leveraging change at state and local levels (with an eye to devolution), and for mobilizing grassroots constituencies which can push for more of what works. There are some national nonprofits with our view that already are organized in this way -- but far too few.
For their part, funders who agree with the positions of such national nonprofits should, we believe, provide sustained and general support for all of the activities shown in Figure 3, not intermittent and categorical support. Such funding will make it much easier than at present for national nonprofits with our perspective to carry out a broad, democratizing what works vision, while linking specific policy and program initiatives to it. Such funding to national nonprofits modeled after Figure 3 also will make it easier than at present to pursue structural reforms which have the potential to change the substance of policy and the rules of the game far into the future.
Such a plan will not only enhance the capacities of local nonprofits but also strengthen the capacities of allies to public and private funders -- entities that help define new, democratizing movements.