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Saying Goodbye Gracefully: Five Capacity Building Lessons from a Time-Limited Investment

From 2009-2016, the Packard Foundation engaged in an intensive effort to improve summer learning in California. Over seven years, we helped to support 12 high-quality demonstration programs with multiple sites, assemble a network of technical assistance providers for summer programs, and advocate for increased support for summer learning at the state and local levels Highlights from this work are in our recently released report, Seven Years of Summer. The Foundation continues to invest in after-school efforts for school age youth through the Local Grantmaking Program in the five local counties of San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey.

Capacity building played a critical role in that time-limited investment. Because the Foundation knew its engagement would be finite, we intentionally looked for ways to build grantee capacity to sustain quality summer learning in California long after we ended our investment. In doing so, we learned some valuable lessons about capacity building that will inform our work going forward. We believe these lessons also can be valuable to other funders and to nonprofit partners who wish to strengthen and sustain their own efforts.

In a nutshell, we learned that:

  • Capacity building should be part of any multi-year initiative from the very beginning. We were very clear with grantees and partners from the outset that the Foundation would only fund this effort for seven years. We hoped our grantees would have the interest and capacity to carry the work forward well beyond that timeframe. Hence, capacity building was baked into our grantmaking strategy from the start. The Foundation provided capacity support both through program-specific funding and through Organizational Effectiveness program funds. In the earlier years, that support was geared more to helping grantees fulfill their roles as participants in the project’s collaboration. In last three years of the initiative, we ramped up the intensity of our capacity building support began to focus more specifically on helping our grantee partners strengthen the field and prepare for transition.
  • Grantees should guide the kinds of capacity support that are offered. While Packard Foundation could have designed capacity building activities based on its own assumptions and experience, we instead asked grantees to share what they most needed in terms of capacity support. For example, the cohort of summer program provider grantees identified both communications and fund development as areas that they needed to strengthen in order to be durable organizations in the long term. This approach delivered double benefit; it meant that grantees felt more ownership and control over the supports provided, and it also gave Foundation staff a better understanding about what kinds of capacity support are most valuable to nonprofit partners. The capacity support through training and coaching was always voluntary for grantees so they could decide if it was the right time and right type of support to receive.
  • Flexible grantmaking for transition allows nonprofits to invest in their own capacity. Transitions mean different things to different organizations. Some may struggle with staffing or program integration, others with improving their fundraising or outward communications. Funders provide value by allowing nonprofit partners the freedom to define their transition needs in ways that make the most sense for them. The Packard Foundation provided more flexible “transition grants” over the last two years of its summer learning investment just for this purpose. Grantees either had total flexibility through a general support grant or were asked to use a portion of their project budget to build the organization’s internal capacity in a way that supported sustainability.
  • Capacity building is not one-size-fits-all. Tailored approaches can make the difference in how much benefit nonprofits derive from capacity building offerings. The Packard Foundation funded capacity building through a “sandwich method”—one-on-one coaching to meet the unique needs of nonprofit partners combined with group sessions at the beginning and end to help provide for common capacity needs and to help grantees continue relationships with one another. In this way, we were able to help create a capacity building “fit” for both individual organizations and the group as a whole.
  • Capacity extends beyond an organization’s internal operations. Our summer learning investment depended on the capacity of our grantee partners to collaborate well with one another. Once we stepped aside, we didn’t want that collaboration to end, but we also realized that the way in which our partners worked together might need to change. We heard from our grantees that they were most worried about losing the flexible funding to meet, plan, and collaborate together and we wanted to be responsive to that concern. For most the summer learning initiative, our grantees and partners engaged in a campaign strategy that used a top-down structure to push out messaging and tools. As we began to think together about life after the Packard Foundation’s investment, we provided capacity support to help our partners explore other models of working together. They chose to explore a network strategy that would provide more flexibility to collaborate on some projects without relying on decision making at the top. This looser network structure has proven useful for inviting more people and organizations to participate, while still maintaining a common focus on summer learning. Grantees and partners also decided to keep the campaign structure in place for some key functions, such as ensuring consistent messaging and advocacy work. The will and ability to collaborate continues, but the structure to do so is one of the most tenuous parts of the effort post-Packard Foundation funding.

Although these lessons about capacity were learned in the context of Packard Foundations’ summer learning strategy, they apply to almost any funding activity — time-limited or not.  We will most certainly carry them forward into future work, and would love to learn from our peers and partners about what they have learned from their own capacity building efforts.

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