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Making Capacity Building Work: Wisdom from Michelle Williams

In 2015, Arts Council Santa Cruz County (the Arts Council), a Packard Foundation Local Grantmaking grantee, received an Organizational Effectiveness (OE) grant to support communications planning. Michelle Williams, Executive Director of the Arts Council, is an experienced nonprofit leader who has implemented several capacity building projects. I recently spoke with Michelle to learn more about what she believes makes a successful OE or other capacity building project, and to explore learnings that she has gained over time along with some “do’s and don’ts” around engaging consultants.

Jean: Thanks so much for sharing your experiences with us, Michelle. Before we get started on what you’ve learned, could you briefly describe your OE project? Why was the project important to the Arts Council, and what were you hoping to accomplish?

Michelle: Of course! Our project focused on communications and its intersection with fund development. During the time when we applied for the OE grant, the Arts Council had been deeply focused on implementing re-branding and re-positioning outcomes related to our strategic planning process. As a result of this process, two major opportunities for community and artist engagement emerged as critical for our future success, impact, and growth. To capitalize on these opportunities and take advantage of their momentum, we wanted to engage with a consulting team in the development of a communications strategy to increase awareness of the Arts Council, deepen engagement with new and existing supporters and artists, and encourage increased investment in the Arts Council.

Jean: What would you say were the key components that led to your recent OE project’s success?

Michelle: Identifying this need, and in this case, honing in on it with the OE team, was central to our success. It certainly helped that a key focus of our current strategic plan implementation is around re-branding and re-positioning the Arts Council, so this new OE project need was for the most part identified through strategic plan implementation. In addition, organizational readiness, and the relationship between understanding the need and finding the right talent (the consultant) were the other pieces that made this work.

Jean: That makes a lot of sense – in fact, OE has often heard that a good consultant fit is key to the success of these projects. I’d like to hear more about that. What do you believe makes a productive consultant/client engagement?

Michelle: So much of this project and its transformative nature hinged on the success of the relationship between the consultant and client (the Arts Council). In the consultant/client relationship it is really all about building trust and understanding from the start. In the past, things have fallen short when we have worked with a consultant who failed to consider the scale of the project and its successful implementation related to our organization given its specific size and complexity (versus that of a much smaller or larger organization). When choosing a consultant, I would encourage others to make sure that the consultant you choose truly respects and accounts for the size and capacity of your organization. There is also something to be said about building a long-term relationship with a consultant and considering engaging the same consultant repeatedly. If you are able to find an expert who can work with you on multiple projects, there is an opportunity for this person to really get to know you/your organization and provide guidance in a way that is deep and meaningful.

Jean: What specific guidance would you give to other organizations on choosing a consultant?

Michelle: I would say that my key piece advice as it relates to choosing a consultant is to follow your gut. The two times we have engaged consultants when it did not work well, I knew in my gut that something felt off in the client/consultant dynamic. If there is anything about a potential consultant that feels like a red flag—regardless of how great her/his references are, or what colleagues have experienced—I recommend that you follow your own instincts. It might be that this person is fantastic but just not right for you and your organization at that particular moment in time, or for that specific project.

Jean: Can you say more about the experience(s) you alluded to earlier where your engagement with a consultant was not as successful?

Michelle: The negative experiences we have had working with a consultant on a capacity building project occurred in most part because her/his recommendations were completely outside our capacity to implement. In one case, the recommendations were so overwhelming that we had to bring in another consultant to right-size the project in order to implement. There’s an interesting balance for the client and consultant relationship. You want someone that presents you with an invitation to be brave and try new things, but is also realistic and customizes to what will work for you and your organization’s current and projected future capacity.

Jean: So what would you say were your greatest learnings from this most recent OE project around communications?

Michelle: The greatest learning we had was pretty simple but also transformative—we learned to talk about the Art Council’s work in a greater context. Ultimately we realized through this project that people love us and support us because we are part of Santa Cruz’s “secret sauce”; so really embracing this in all of our messaging has made a big difference in how we present ourselves and how the public responds. We have seen tangible results from talking about the progress of our work—for example, in the midst of the changes in the political climate, when it felt like supporting the arts might take a back burner, we in fact saw a significant increase in our end-of-year giving.

Jean: Besides what you have already shared, which has been very illuminating, are there any additional “words of wisdom” that you might have for a Packard Foundation grantee, particularly someone new to OE, around taking on a capacity building project?

Michelle: If you are going to embark on an OE project, or any capacity building project for that matter, it helps to be at a place where not doing it (the project) isn’t an option. All of the capacity building projects that we have completed successfully have been something that we must do, rather than we should do. Really, when you have that moment of clarity—around a certain project or process which needs to happen in order for the organization to move forward—you become ready and willing to bring in the best people and find the necessary resources to make it a reality.

In addition, the Arts Council identifies itself as a learning organization—one that is committed to investing in its own learning and development—and that has felt core to our success in implementing capacity building efforts. If your organization is not grounded in curiosity, open to change, and willing to hear outside perspectives, it will be difficult to implement something transformational. There is also the importance of getting full team (staff and board) buy-in. For every capacity building project, we have completed and implemented, almost every team member has been involved—it is truly a big lift for all. Taking this into account, the timing needs to be right and all hands should be prepared to be on deck!

Jean: It sounds like these capacity building projects have been important for the Arts Council. What would you say to the field of philanthropy about the usefulness of these kinds of investments?

Michelle: I have profound gratitude for these capacity building opportunities. The OE resources have allowed us to change us for the better, and made us who we want to be in this community. I don’t want to imagine a world where we did not have access to these resources and thinkers. It is really very special, and has been transformative for us. When I got here 7.5 years ago, we had a staff of seven and budget of $790,000. Today, we are a staff of eleven with a budget of over $1.7 million. And even more importantly, people now see us as a partner in all aspects of community life. A lot of this change is because of the work we were able to do as a Packard Foundation OE grantee. I would enthusiastically encourage and urge more foundations to make these kinds of transformational opportunities available to their grantees!

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