Trainings are hardly a new (or exciting) topic when it comes to capacity building for nonprofits. But sometimes they still hold the power to surprise.

A prime example came up recently in a major capacity-building initiative that my colleagues and I managed, when our data revealed that one-time trainings brought some of the best results. According to conventional wisdom, this should not have been the case. Typically trainings are regarded as an unlikely path to lasting change; the thinking is that whatever learning they produce doesn’t stick. For this reason, we decided to try out some new ideas when we helped design the Strengthening Organizations to Mobilize Californians initiative (click to read the just-released “lessons learned” report).

Funded by The James Irvine Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the initiative involved 27 community organizing nonprofits in California, including Alliance for a Better Community, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Focused on improving organizational capacity, the initiative ultimately sought to meet the funders’ broader goal of supporting democracy through more inclusive decision-making.

Trainings were one item on a broad menu of learning community activities provided over two years from 2008 to 2010. All told, the initiative offered 12 trainings, 18 peer exchange sessions, and 2 convenings. We were eager for the opportunity to compare these different elements. One of our biggest questions was whether trainings would succeed, and if so, which ingredients would lead to that success.

Our team found through an evaluation process that trainings generated some of the initiative’s biggest gains. Those who attended the sessions on communication, for instance, noted marked improvement in their ability to articulate their organization’s vision, develop a communications plan, implement that plan, and manage change over time.

We were pleased—but we weren’t completely surprised. The findings supported ideas about capacity building that our firm, TCC Group, has been exploring for years and increasingly putting into practice. Namely, our evaluations of more than 50 capacity-building projects over the past decade have shown us that the reason many fail to achieve organizational change is that they focus on preparing leaders to change, rather than actual implementation. We use the parlance of “Ready, Set, Go.” Skills-building, reports, and plans, we have found, will only take people so far (i.e., “Ready” and “Set”). In the end, they need to be able to take action (i.e., “Go”).

Our idea was to make sure that “Go” happened during the training. Discussions focused on practices that work. As one participant put it, this dialogue “allowed us to compare our strengths and weaknesses with other peers and learn from their experiences.” The trainings also featured hands-on worksheets, role plays, and action planning.  Finally, they focused on concrete takeaways to guide immediate improvements.

Three other characteristics set the trainings apart. First, they were tailored to small organizations that were struggling to make change without many resources. The practices presented, for instance, required a reallocation of these limited resources—not additional time or money. Second, whole teams were encouraged to attend, again underscoring a focus on forging action plans and following through. Third, organizations volunteered to participate. Those that came, then, were highly motivated regarding that training topic.

“Go” is all about the time and space to think not just about big ideas, but the details that really matter in implementing change. Preparing, of course, is important, but execution takes something more—practice, feedback, realistic expectations, and insights from talking with others about their experiences. “Go” is about rolling up your sleeves and getting down to work, and for our team and many initiative participants, it managed to make trainings feel exciting and relevant after all.

What has your experience been with organizational effectiveness training for nonprofits? Have you been able to make it more action-oriented and sticky? What are you suggestions for how funders can go beyond support for assessment and planning (“Ready” and “Set”) activities and provide better support for implementation (“Go”) work through training, clinics, peer exchange, and coaching? 

imageSusan Misra is the associate director of Program and Grants Management and Capacity Building at TCC Group, a national management consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to funders, nonprofits, and corporate citizenship programs. She has worked with clients in a variety of fields, including the arts, environment, education, community development, and social justice. She received an MPP from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.