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Capacity Building with Groups of Grantees: A Few Things We’ve Learned (So Far)

The OE program is investing more these days in capacity building with cohorts of grantees. Kathy Reich reflects on this work in a blog post, “Capacity Building with Groups of Grantees: A Few Things We’ve Learned (So Far)“, posted on the 2014 GEO conference blog.

For more than 30 years, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation (www.packard.org) has awarded Organizational Effectiveness grants to nonprofit organizations to strengthen their leadership, management, and strategic development. In 2012, we expanded our approach to include capacity building with cohorts of grantees. Over the past year, we’ve supported four of these cohorts, with more to come:

  • Leadership development, governance, and financial management with 32 non-profits in Mexico
  • Innovation and adaptive capacity with 12 youth development organizations in Silicon Valley
  • Strategic communications with 10 summer enrichment programs in California
  • Strategic communications and social media capacity with 16 children’s health advocacy groups nationwide

Our reasons for expanding into cohort-capacity building were both practical and strategic. On the practical side, building capacity with more than one grantee at a time can be cost-effective; bringing in one trainer, consultant, or coach can be cheaper and faster than bringing in a dozen. This is especially true in some of the far-flung places we work, like Papua New Guinea and Ethiopia.

More importantly, we thought capacity building in groups could have benefits for the work itself. Building capacity in groups can allows nonprofit leaders to learn from and connect with peers, and creates a positive “network effect.” Maybe, if you can learn effectively together, you can partner effectively in other ways as well.

But you have to do it right. And we’re learning that there are ways to do it right, and ways to do it not-so-right. For example, we knew going in that it’s extremely important to assess what grantees need and want from a capacity building program, as well as their willingness/readiness to participate in a cohort. But we’ve learned that it’s equally important to involve grantees meaningfully in the design of the cohort itself. In our cohorts, we’ve had grantees form advisory committees, plan meetings, bring in speakers or veto speakers, and help draft RFPs.

We’ve also learned that capacity building cohorts take a lot of time, effort, and trust building. Progress can be slow and outcomes difficult to quantify. Not everything can be accomplished in a group, so even cohort group requires extensive one-on-one follow-up, and we’ve taken to adding individual and organizational coaching to our cohorts. And we’ve learned that the nonprofits involved shouldn’t be expected to invest their time and energy for free. We’ve had to think about pairing our capacity building support with support that enables people’s meaningful participation, such as coverage for staff time and travel.

We’ve learned a lot more—enough to fill an entire session. So on Wednesday March 12 I’ll be moderating “The Power of Partnership: Networked Approaches to Capacity Building and Leadership,” at 8:30 a.m. in Studio C. Two talented grantmakers who have been working with cohorts for much longer than I have, Kaki Rusmore of the Community Foundation for Monterey County and Joann Ricci of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, will share brief case studies about the benefits and challenges of capacity building with groups. We’ll include a lot of time for open space discussions about opportunities and challenges we’re all facing in cohort capacity building. Any ideas for open space topics? We can start a list in the comments section of this blog!

Kathy Reich is Director of Organizational Effectiveness Grantmaking at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and a GEO board member. She tweets at @kdreich. You can learn more about by following on Twitter: @PackardOE.

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