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.