Organizational Development

Building Capacity Through Networks

In the quest for effective capacity building strategies, don’t overlook the power of networks.

In an article last fall, TCC Group’s Jared Raynor suggested that nonprofit capacity building is evolving, introduced the idea of “Capacity Building 3.0,” and called for others to engage in a dialogue about its future. While the sector’s response seemed relatively muted, we observed aspects of the evolution described in Capacity Building 3.0 right under our noses and decided to examine our own experience of building capacity through a network of state associations of nonprofits.

Our recent paper compiles case studies demonstrating how nonprofits that are part of a network can leverage resources and knowledge to build capacity more effectively than nonprofits that “go it alone.” Our work has shown that as network members become engaged, the network itself begins to constitute a valuable “bank account” of relationships that contributes to compounding the network’s collective capacity. This bank account of relationships expands opportunities for learning and problem solving, accelerates innovative approaches, and ultimately creates a resilient web of resources that yields more sustainable and effective nonprofit organizations.

Examples abound. Co-location for the Colorado Collaborative of Nonprofits network, for instance, promotes idea exchange, knowledge sharing, and joint programming that accelerate individual organizational growth. The Nonprofit Association of Oregon facilitates peer-learning cohorts with local nonprofit leaders who convene around a specific topic—such as equity and inclusion, or outcome evaluation—helping leaders build stronger professional relationships over time than if each had simply attended a “one-and-done” traditional capacity building workshop. The Utah Nonprofits Association serves as the backbone for a leadership development initiative nestled within its own network of nonprofits in southern Utah. And Washington Nonprofits’ Finance Unlocked for Nonprofits initiative distributes a learning tool across its vast network that helps nonprofit leaders build their organization’s financial literacy.

Many nonprofits wait for the “right” time to engage in capacity building or for dedicated funding to support their efforts, but tapping into existing networks of nonprofits allows organizations to continuously build capacity and grow steadily stronger, often without the need for additional funding. For organizations looking to strategically leverage networks to build capacity, we gleaned the following lessons from the capacity building examples we studied:

1. Understand and align your organization’s priorities.

Matching your capacity building efforts to the needs of your organization is vital, but it’s easy to get off track. It may be tempting, for example, to place a priority on a capacity building initiative that presents itself wrapped in a bow. Say a new staff member is uncomfortable using your current database; instead of identifying a funding source to help your organization switch to a new one off the bat, you might use network contacts to determine whether it would be more efficient to organize a user group for network members who use the same database. Tapping the wisdom of the network can save time, aggravation, and perhaps thousands of dollars in fees for consultants to train staff or customize a new database, or to replace software that staff may simply not understand. Conversely, the network may confirm that your nonprofit is an outlier for using that particular database. Understanding and weighing the return on investment of capacity building opportunities and using a network as a sounding board can help you establish priorities, and make your nonprofit an informed consumer of a capacity building initiative.

2. Learn from your peers.

Leverage your participation in a network to learn from other nonprofit leaders. When you participate in a peer-learning cohort, even with others who do not share your specific job responsibilities, you often hear how other nonprofits approach challenges that your nonprofit may also be struggling with. Seeing the problem from their perspectives can offer another way to surmount barriers. Addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a classic example of how learning from others increases effectiveness. Peer cohorts offer a venue conducive to conversations about such challenges. When you hear someone with a far different lived experience than yours explain how it feels to go through a board orientation, you may realize that you need to reorient orientation! That insight can influence the way your nonprofit plans its next board orientation—and perhaps its success in attracting and retaining a diverse board of directors.

3. Utilize technology.

We can’t ignore the role of technology as a lubricant for learning across a diffuse network. The utility of e-learning combined with peer learning now reaches beyond higher education and into the sphere of nonprofit capacity building. Networks are especially well-suited to using web-based knowledge-sharing and collaboration tools that easily allow network members to upload and download evaluation templates, curricula for educational programs, and other tools. Technology also allows network members to connect in real time even though they are geographically distant, and to facilitate educational programs that take advantage of a combination of online and in-person learning components. For instance, without a listserv to pose questions and share lessons, or a way distribute e-blasts to nonprofits in the far corners of a state, our network’s ability to duplicate what works or alert nonprofits to best practices would take longer and reach fewer nonprofits.

4. Make it last.

The longevity of a peer-learning experience is a characteristic of successful networked capacity building. Trusted and lasting relationships help individuals initiate dialogue and encourage knowledge exchange over a longer period of time. The one-time workshops nonprofit capacity builders relied on in the past don’t make the same deep impression on program participants as longer-term, peer-learning cohorts, which prompt participants to dig deeply into their personal learning journeys and connect more easily with fellow participants as a result of trust built up over time. Without that trust, individuals who meet only once are simply less likely to share valuable lessons about what didn’t work with each other. Also, while traditional capacity building workshops may be filled with bright minds and rich experiences, those assets often remain untapped. As noted in the growing literature about collective impact, if those same individuals were participating in a network, their common agenda and mutual dependence would more likely prompt them to share their knowledge and experiences with each other. 

In our experience, nonprofits that are part of a network can leverage resources and knowledge to build capacity more effectively than nonprofits that “go it alone.” The relationships within a network accelerate the growth of individual network members’ capacity and enhance the collective impact of a network, which can result in more sustainable and effective nonprofit organizations, and healthier and more vibrant communities.

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  • Trisha Lester's avatar

    BY Trisha Lester

    ON February 9, 2016 05:06 PM

    The power of peer learning through a network can’t be underestimated.  I love the way Jenny and Kristen have illustrated this through the National Council of Nonprofits’ network and, in turn, its domino effect through the state associations’ own members.  Very powerful!

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON February 10, 2016 12:58 PM

    Happy to see you writing about this again. I’ve been trying to build a network of people in Chicago and other cities who focus on the well-being of youth in poverty and include organized volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs as a core strategy since 1994. Huge challenge with people constantly changing in organizations, with silos, and with inconsistent, and limited funding.  For the past few years I’ve been looking for examples of people who use maps and network analysis to show participation in events they host, and who also use the tools to show growth and identify who is not participating, but who is needed. Here’s one blog article with an example of that effort.  Many more like this can be found by searching articles around “network building” on the site.  Have you found others using network analysis and/or mapping to understand their network, nudge the network and grow the network…who also are focused on urban poverty?

  • BY Bonnie Mazza, Associate Director of Nonprofit Stra

    ON February 11, 2016 07:05 AM

    Thanks Jennifer and Kristen for bringing the concepts we’ve shared in our CB 3.0 paper to life and putting meat on the bones here! We agree that acknowledging and embracing an organization’s role in a network will not only accelerate growth, but will make it possible for a nonprofit to achieve its desired impact.

    As we continue to dig into the CB 3.0 work and explore ways to operationalize this framework, my colleagues at TCC Group and I are piloting a collective capacity building learning process in communities across the country. Using a place-based strategy, we are partnering with local funders, capacity building providers, and nonprofit leaders to design informed, effective capacity building initiatives that rely on the notion (proposed in our CB 3.0 paper), that our complex social problems can only be solved when all social sector actors appreciate the need to build their respective relational capacity together.  In addition to fostering the invaluable peer-to-peer learning you reference in your article, we facilitate a process through which funders and grantees commit to jointly constructing and implementing a shared capacity building agenda —one that meets both the funders’ capacity building goals, and makes it possible for actual change to take place on the grantee organization’s part.

    As your article so adeptly notes, the only way capacity building support can actually make a meaningful difference is when it targets those capacities a nonprofit identifies as most critical to build — rather than addressing a pre-determined set of funder-driven priorities. We would love to learn about additional “real-life” stories of how CB 3.0 is being actualized on a day to day basis, and especially hear from SSIR readers as to if and how they’ve seen the dialogue around capacity building change in their communities and/or with their funders!

  • Diana Bermudez's avatar

    BY Diana Bermudez

    ON June 4, 2016 03:41 PM

    This makes sense but what about the time and financial constraints often cited by nonprofits as obstacles to networking? Can we put our arms around time and cost requirements of networking? Do organizations need to make internal modifications—in structure and behavior—to work effectively in external networks? What are the best environmental conditions for optimal networking?

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