Recently, I attended a condominium board meeting to find out what was going on in our building. The condominium board had hired a consulting firm to assess the common areas in the building to identify ways to maximize space. One of the initial findings was that the bicycle room was not efficiently organized. With some minor changes the bikes could be stored in a smaller footprint, thus freeing up additional storage space in the room, perhaps for stroller storage. And this was only the beginning of new possibilities!

Over the years, I have conducted many assessments for nonprofit organizations. In every instance, the findings have been, in one way or another, revealing. This post discusses the value of capacity building readiness assessments.

Capacity Building – Are You Ready?

At its essence, capacity building is about increasing organizational effectiveness and the ability to function at a high level in key strategic areas. The National Council of Nonprofits defines capacity building as different types of activities, all aimed at improving a nonprofit’s ability to deliver its mission effectively. In my experience, some organizations are hyper-developed in one or two areas and may be underdeveloped in others. When this is the case, not having all the necessary resources to support the work to deliver their missions often holds them back. Nonprofits have the ability to fulfill their missions because they are well equipped to lead and manage, set priorities, make decisions, and adapt. Increasing capacity is about ensuring a fully developed organization in all strategic areas.

The first step to building capacity is often a readiness assessment, an appraisal of all aspects of an organization to discover its strengths and challenges. In the assessment process, it is important to engage with volunteer leadership and staff at all levels and evaluate management and operations, the board of directors and governance, program and evaluation, human resources, finance, fundraising and resource generation, technology, space and facility, visibility and communications, volunteer management, and other areas dictated by mission and/or structure. The outcome of this in-depth look at an organization would be a report detailing 1) existing capacity in these areas as well as areas in need of attention; and 2) a set of recommendations for actions meant to capitalize on assets and address deficiencies. When conducting a readiness assessment, I also include a set of observations based on what I learn about an organization while conducting the interviews. This added feedback often provides context for the recommendations. Out of all of this comes a set of priorities for the work ahead to increase organizational capacity in key strategic areas.

One organization I worked with viewed the recommendations from its capacity building readiness assessment as a plan for addressing organizational needs over the course of several years. While not a strategic plan per se, the assessment report almost felt like one because it outlined work the organization needed to do internally in order to have the infrastructure to fulfill its mission. The assessment findings challenged some closely held beliefs and opened the door for strategic discussions. Moreover, the assessment findings called on board directors to increase their commitment to the organization, especially financially. Some viewed it as a call to step up or step away. No value judgment was attached to any board member’s decision to step away because of the implicit understanding that not every board member was interested or equipped to lead this essential organizational change.

I worked with another organization that was taken aback by some of the readiness assessment findings. The experience was a wake-up call. In order to continue its work in the community, this organization’s leaders had to address the fallout of years of neglecting the infrastructure. The readiness assessment pointed out the need for new computers. Because the technology was so old, tech support was no longer available. The vulnerability was extreme – this organization ran the risk of losing its entire client and fundraising database. This was only one of several serious issues that emerged.

In these cases, as in others, the follow-up step to the readiness assessment was to seek funding for an important capacity building project. The first organization began with a grant for board development and fundraising consulting; the second began with a grant request to upgrade its technology.

Where You End Depends on Where You Begin

For nonprofit leaders, understanding capacity building needs begins with a readiness assessment. It ends with an organization that better understands the conditions that support fulfilling its mission effectively.