Tips to Build Capacity
Chances are you’ve been there: A great plan fails. The data you count on is inaccurate or incomplete. A project isn’t working the way it should. Staff morale is low. These sorts of disappointments are rarely from lack of commitment. Most often, they boil down to a lack of capacity.
Even if an organization’s strategy is on target, without proper capacity, projects likely will fail to meet goals or deadlines; relationships among staff and with community partners may be strained; data may not be adequately analyzed or used to its fullest potential; and plans and tools may quickly become outdated.
Fortunately, there are ways to identify and address capacity challenges in any organization. To do this, you must be willing to admit there is room for growth and improvement. Below are tips, tools, and examples to get you started.
First, identify capacity challenges to understand the barriers and opportunities.
- Determine the end goal and create a plan – Put pen to paper. Decide where you want to take your organization or team, determine your end goal, and work to create a plan that includes strategies and a timeline to meet your organizational goals. For example, if you are creating a communication plan, ACS’ Dirty Dozen of Strategic Communication tool can help you be purposeful and intentional about your communication. Following the rest of the tips in this newsletter will help you modify your plan based on your current capacity.
- Complete an internal assessment of assets and resources – Review your organization’s access to funding, the capacity of staff, and the time you have available to reach the goals. Be honest with yourself about whether you have the resources necessary to meet the goal. If you are focusing on public policy, use ACS’ Assessing Your Capacity for Engagement to gauge your organization’s readiness and capacity to meet your goals.
- Understand external assets and resources that may be leveraged – Review the landscape and take tabs on community partners, allies, opposition, and external problems. Understanding how they are aligned with your organization may help you reach your organization’s goals. Don’t reinvent the wheel! Ask partners how they think your organization can be more effective and if they would be willing to partner with you to achieve your goal. Use ACS’ Network Mapping Tool to clarify potential partnerships, determine next steps for collaborative activities, or uncover barriers for creating change in your community.
Next, it’s time to explore ways to address those challenges and take advantage of opportunities.
- Upgrade your skills – Identify areas of expertise that are missing on your staff or board, and find ways to build upon or improve those skills. The realm of professional development opportunities is practically endless and could include leadership development, advocacy training, network building, and more. For example, to ensure that a statewide outreach and engagement campaign would be successful, ACS client First Things First in Arizona provided media spokesperson training and facilitation training for all key staff members. ACS developed the following tools that were used in a customized facilitation training: Active Listening Techniques, Facilitation Planning Checklist, and Understand & Solve Facilitation Challenges.
- Partner with others – You and your organization do not have to do it all. Look outside your organization to find partners that might share responsibility on a project or initiative. This could be staff sharing, financial backing, or someone else taking responsibility for a piece of the project (such as data management). For example, to address youth homelessness in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the organizational members of A Place 4 Me divided up tasks in a very complex process and delegated them to partner organizations in the network with the best capacity to complete them. While one organization applied its expertise in managing data collection, another specifically focused on making policy changes to support youth in foster care. Check out ACS’Collective Impact: Mutually Reinforcing Activity Checklist to help you boost the power of multiple organizations working on shared planning and activities to accomplish a common agenda.
- Leverage the board – Use the connections and expertise of your organization’s board or volunteers and ask for their help to reach your goals. When the Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health (WI-AIMH) asked ACS for assistance creating their communication plan, they understood they needed to leverage their board members to help their small but mighty staff implement the plan. They included their board in the planning process through a two-day communication planning session, which led to a much more informed strategy and greater buy-in and capacity to help support implementation. WI-AIMH ultimately leveraged their communication plan and received positive coverage from the World Association of Infant Mental Health and Stevens Point Journal.
- Research best practices – Knowledge and information boosts your ability to make good decisions and increases the likelihood of success. Explore models and best practices, and reach out to experts in your field who are willing to share information. Do not re-create the wheel! Conduct a scan of other organizations or programs doing similar work, find out how they accomplished their goals, and leverage their lessons learned. Researching best practices was a key component of building knowledge for the City of Little Rock, Arkansas, when it set out to create its first-ever Master Plan for Children, Youth, and Families. Understanding that it needed to identify practices that might work in Little Rock, the City engaged ACS to conduct a national scan of other successful programs, and used those findings to inform the City’s own planning process.
- Develop, assess, or revise organizational or coalition structures and practices – Assess how your organization or coalition does its work. Capacity challenges often arise from inefficient practices or misalignment of responsibilities. Does the staff, board, or decision-making structure help accomplish your goals? Do practices support or take away from your goals? Where does staff need additional support or training? ACS has worked with clients like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise grantees to help them develop organizational structures that support boys and young men of color strategies around the country. Check out ACS’ Collaboration Glossary of Terms to explore different ways of collaborating with your partners.
- Get ready to make hard choices – Another common source of capacity challenges can be found when an organization takes on too much or doesn’t know where to start. Determine what is a “want” and what is a “need,” and get ready to say no to “wants” that will not help you achieve your goals. For example, in 2016, ACS worked for six months with the board of directors and staff leadership of the J. Marion Sims Foundation culminating in a strategy session that helped them make tough decisions and zero in on a strategic vision. ACS continues to provide thought leadership and communication support to the foundation to ensure they stay focused on achieving their organizational goals.
- Prepare to adjust – Check in regularly on how your plan or project has evolved, and be ready to adjust your timeline depending on relevant outcomes. Checking in on a regular basis may reveal additional capacity challenges or assets that you did not originally see, and you may have to course correct to meet your goals. Check out ACS’ Assess Your Collaboration to help collaborative efforts reflect on their progress, no matter what stage they are in: during planning, throughout implementation, or as your collaborative effort is winding down to completion.
Six steps you can take right now:
1.) Start talking – Make capacity a topic for discussion during your next staff or board meeting. Ask others on your team where they see capacity challenges and what it might take to address them. Ask them to read up on capacity building and report back, and then continue the conversation.
2.) Frame capacity issues positively – Sometimes it’s easy to think of lack of capacity as a criticism instead of an opportunity. Avoid blaming individuals for lack of capacity. Instead, offer capacity building as a way for everyone to grow and improve your organization together.
3.) Consider the obvious – It’s likely that you already have an idea about where capacity in your organization might improve. What might you do in the short-term to move toward increasing that capacity? For example, if you are a CEO with the nagging feeling that no one in your organization will be ready to take the reins when you retire, start looking for leadership development opportunities for those on your senior leadership team.
4.) Look beyond the mirror – Even when taking an honest look, capacity issues are sometimes invisible to those inside an organization. Find an outside resource to help you look objectively at your operation and help you see past your blind spots to identify opportunities for increased capacity.
5.) Remember, one size does not fit all – Solutions to your organization’s challenges will evolve over time, and the solutions will be unique to your organization and goals. Don’t be tempted to only follow an off-the-shelf solution.
6.) Think long-term – If you think of capacity only as a quick fix, you’ll constantly wrestle with capacity issues. Instead, understand the capacity you’ll need to meet your goals 2, 5, 10, or 20 years down the road and plan (and invest) accordingly. When capacity is an ongoing part of the equation, it’s more likely to become a continual part of the solution rather than a constant challenge.