Last week, I heard representatives of a corporate foundation and two nonprofit organizations say that their attempts at capacity building had not yielded their intended results. (The National Council of Nonprofits defines capacity building perhaps best: “Whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, in order to more effectively and efficiently fulfill its mission.”)

One of the nonprofit leaders stated that a funder paid for a top-five consulting firm to come in—the consulting group spent six months building a strategic plan that “sat on the shelf” because the organization was unable to apply the strategy to their work day-to-day. The person went on to say that the final strategic planning document looked “really pretty” and that they sometimes attach it to the back of grant proposals—a sort of “window dressing.”

Meanwhile, the corporate foundation had increased their dedication to capacity building during the economic downturn. It had provided funding to grantees to hire either fundraising staff or a consultant to build the organization’s board, but the results were underwhelming. Ultimately, the funder was disappointed—boards had not instantly become the powerhouse collection of governance giants it envisioned, and modestly paid, just-out-of-college development associates didn’t manage to open the floodgates to funding. Nonprofit practitioners sometimes smirk at the unrealistic expectations attached to nominal capacity-building grants; foundations are dismayed when they don’t see results.

Unrealistic capacity-building strategies are often injected into organizations, and both funders and nonprofits are disappointed when a short-term capacity-building “work-out” does not produce long-term improvement. Adding a couple new board members or going through a strategic planning process might have some benefits—think new perspectives for board meetings or a written strategies that can help clarify next steps. But longstanding structures and process inefficiencies are just waiting to get in the way of progress and negate the short-term capacity-building gains.

What fitness experts will probably tell you is that the key to wellness is not periodic “Six-Minute Abs” workouts but regular visits to the gym. Capacity building should follow suit. Whether it is fundraising, board development, or strategic planning, they should be part of the daily routine, strengthened by all of many of the organization’s efforts and activities.

This long-term health model allows organizations to continually work on the challenges and issues that confront them. For those in the philanthropic world: Rather than making periodic grants that focus on capacity building, embed capacity-building funding into each and every grant you make. For example, if you provide money for program staff, top off that funding by ensuring that the staff is trained in program evaluation. Funders need to layer the funding of capacity building into their programmatic grants, and nonprofit organizations need to develop the acumen to manage and build capacity each and every day. 

Read more stories by John Brothers.