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Amy Wishnick

About Amy

Capacity Building Readiness Assessments – A Meaningful Diagnostic

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.


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  1. Mark Jerome on November 3, 2016 at 11:19 pm

    Dear Amy
    I enjoyed your blog and fully agree with your comments and conclusions. From my own experience, I would add two comments:

    1. Almost all the assessments I have performed were intended to help prepare for new grants. A critical question therefore was what impact the additional funds and activities would have on the existing people and structure of the organization - and whether those activities would be sustainable at the end of the grant. A critical part of my work has therefore been to persuade recipients that it is in their best interest to be open about any capacity gaps - and to explain to donors what are the practical constraints of operating in developing countries.

    2. Capacity assessments need to be flexible and alert to changes. For example, an organization I examined had a well-functioning IT system that enabled it to monitor activities in local offices across the country. However, we learned that it was about to move to a new office, which did not have good internet access: in order to send and receive emails (which included sensitive health records), it would have to send a courier with a flashdrive to its old office (a kilometer away). After discussing the implications with the donor and local authorities, the organization was able to get the internet connection to the new office installed quickly.

    • Amy Wishnick on November 4, 2016 at 10:41 am

      Mark, thank you for your comments. I agree that it is important to help our clients be open about their capacity building needs. Your story in #2 is quite interesting. It also points out the need to be aware of all the elements related to organizational capacity. So glad the organization was able to get the internet connection they needed to do their work.

  2. Solomon Belette on February 1, 2017 at 11:12 am

    Hi Amy,

    What specific tool would you recommend for conducting a nonprofit need/capacity assessment that is easy to implement. Please advise. Thanks.

  3. Amy Wishnick on February 1, 2017 at 12:24 pm

    Hi Solomon,

    Thank you for your inquiry. When I conduct an assessment I develop a proprietary set of questions for individual interview depending on the client's needs. In addition to that, I have used the Marguerite Casey Foundation Organizational Capacity Assessment Tool to engage board and staff. There is a link on the foundation's website for the self-scoring tool. I have found it easy to use. In addition, there are similar tools offered by McKinsey and other sources.

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