Capacity Building 9.1: Give someone a fish, let them focus on carpentry


kitten-1582384_1280My organization, Rainier Valley Corps, just finished our first program year (yay!). In case you didn’t know, RVC’s flagship program is a fellowship where we find talented leaders of color, provide them with training and support, and have them work full-time at small, grassroots organizations led by communities of color. The fellows help the organizations build capacity and run programs while gaining critical leadership and nonprofit management skills.

This year, our ten brilliant fellows have:


  • coordinated protests against unfair labor laws;
  • furthered the work to create an economic zone that provides employment and entrepreneurial support to people of color;
  • organized discussions on racial equity and dynamics in light of the national tragedies;
  • planned and implemented extended-learning programs for low-income youth;
  • surveyed over 650 parents of color regarding their views and needs on education
  • wrote successful grant proposals, coordinated board retreats, planned events, managed community centers, did a million other things,
  • sang a lot of karaoke,
  • and generally made our community better, safer, and way more awesome

Before I launch into today’s topic, I want to take a quick moment to thank our funders who have been supporting this work: United Way of King County, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the City of Seattle, The Seattle Foundation, Boeing, The Statewide Capacity Collaborative, The Loom Foundation, the Satterberg Foundation, the Peach Foundation, University Unitarian Church, the Opus Community Foundation, Social Venture Partners, The Whitman Institute, and American Express Foundation, along with hundreds of donors, volunteers, and partnership orgs who made this happen. Thank you for investing in our leaders of color, and in our small but powerful organizations led by communities of color.

It’s only been a year of programming, but we have been drawing some critical lessons for the field. I’ll be exploring them on this blog, between posts about nonprofit cocktail recipes and irritating jargon. Today, we reexamine a basic tenet of capacity building, which is the whole teaching-a-man-to-fish thing. This post will be long, and not everyone finds capacity building as sexy and fascinating as some of us cool people do, so I’m inserting pictures of puppies and kittens to keep you reading.

Why it doesn’t always work to teach organizations to fish

Over the past few years, I’ve been seeing a lot of frustration among funders regarding the lack of growth among small grassroots organizations, especially those led by marginalized communities. As our demographics shift and Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion become more salient in our work, these organizations play an increasingly important role. Often, they have relationships with diverse communities and are most effective at mobilizing them. But they continue to struggle to build their capacity.

So funders have been trying to help them develop, by teaching them to fish. We have a long-held belief that in order to build the capacity of organizations, we must teach them important skills such as financial management, evaluation, board governance, HR, etc. If we just throw money at them—give them a fish, so to speak—they’ll never build their infrastructure. After several years of working with our leaders and organizations, I want us to critically reexamine this fundamental premise, because I don’t think it’s effective, and in many cases, it’s actually counterproductive to what we are trying to do as a field.

What if a person’s skill is not fishing, but building houses? Let’s say someone’s an amazing carpenter. We keep insisting that this carpenter learn to fish, so the carpenter spends half his time doing that. Because of that, fewer houses are getting built, and he’s still pretty much a mediocre fisherman who feels horrible and guilty that he can’t fish as well as others.

After working with dozens of organizations, I would argue that our default traditional capacity puppy-1502565_1280building strategy of teaching people to fish has not been working for many nonprofits, especially nonprofits led by marginalized communities, for several reasons:

  • Lack of staffing for capacity building: You can send nonprofits to a million workshops and send a dozen consultants to them, but if they don’t have staffing to implement anything, it most likely won’t work. Strategic plans, for example, are often a running joke in our sector, tending to gather dust. And this is for organizations that are well-staffed. For smaller organizations with no, or part-time, or mainly-volunteer staffing, it is often impossible to implement these plans.
  • Not enough time or energy for capacity building: Let’s face it, many leaders do not enter this field to focus their time on building organization infrastructure, as important as it is. The organization is a means to achieve programmatic goals. They know it’s important, but when there is limited time, leaders will choose helping a community member in need over poring through financial statements or HR policies. And who can blame them?
  • Good capacity building is expensive: It always amazes me how we expect small nonprofits to handle complex things such as program evaluation while giving them tiny amounts in resources. It’s like giving someone a third of a fishing pole and asking them to go catch some fish. Good evaluation, like good financial management or fundraising, etc., take a lot of money to do well.
  • Good capacity building is specialized: Capacity building activities are expensive because they are often extremely complex. To do well, they often have to be done by organizations and people that that specialize in them. Expecting small nonprofits, which may not have any experience in these areas, and who have no staff, to pull them off effectively is usually unrealistic.

Give the carpenter the fish and let him focus on building houses!

animal-children-803123_1280A while ago I wrote Capacity 9.0: Fund people to do stuff, get out of their way. In it, I mention Jan Masaoka (of CalNonprofits)’s argument that funders love funding hammers and nails but not actual carpenters; and then we wonder why not enough houses are getting built. There is a disdain among many funders and donors to pay for staffing, and it greatly affects what can be achieved by our sector.

But to extend the metaphor further, when we do have carpenters in the sector, we are forcing them to spend most of their time learning to fish, and catching fish, and not allowing them to do carpentry. We have brilliant leaders or organizations in our sector. They are good at getting people to vote, getting kids to study, helping parents understand the school system, delivering hot meals to seniors, helping individuals with mental illness, supporting victims of domestic violence, advocating, saving the environment, etc.

But we force them to use 50% of their time trying, and struggling, to do capacity building. It often doesn’t work, and the more time and energy these orgs spend trying to build capacity, the less they can actually do the stuff they’re good at and passionate about, and that we need them to do. Again, these are often the only organizations that can reach the diverse communities they serve.

Of course, despite the above and other challenges, many organizations manage to do remarkable jobs building their capacity. But overall, I sense an increasing frustration among grassroots organizations at the unrealistic and underfunded expectations for them to build capacity. We can’t keep talking about equity, diversity, disruption, innovation if we keep using the same flawed strategies. So, what do we do? Here are things to think about:

Change the way we view nonprofits: There is an unconscious perception that nonprofits are like the low-income people we serve, as I wrote in Let’s stop treating nonprofits the way we treat poor people. That’s why we insist organizations also learn to fish, so they can be “sustainable.” (As one of my colleagues, a funder, says, “Sustainability is not a thing.”) Nonprofits are not low-income clients; we are partners doing critical work. So let’s stop it with this whole teaching-nonprofits-to-fish in areas of evaluation, HR, IT, communications, etc. If they are interested in it, great; if not, let’s figure out how to get them those things so they can focus on doing the stuff they are good at and that we need them to do.

Fund organizations to hire people to do stuff. A colleague of mine was asked by a funder, “You do amazing work. How can we help you build your financial management capacity?” Her response? “Just give me some money so I can hire or outsource out to a finance company to do my bookkeeping and financial reports!” Honestly, so many of the leaders, especially leaders from marginalized communities, are sick of getting everything except money to just hire skilled people to do stuff. Not to teach them to do stuff, but to actually DO the stuff that they need done! 

Fund outsourced activities. Most small orgs cannot afford to hire their own full-time CFO or kittens-555822_1280HR director, nor would they have enough work for a full-time person. Outsourcing may be the way to go. But because of the teach-a-man-to-fish philosophy, many nonprofits are not allowed to do that. We’d rather fund them to attend a grantwriting workshop, for example, rather than just allowing them to pay for a freelance grantwriter to take lead in writing grant proposals. As I mentioned, so many things we expect nonprofits to be able to do well are complex—HR practices, evaluation, financial management, etc. There are organizations that do these things way more effectively and efficiently because they specialize in these areas. Allow nonprofits to use their funding to outsource.

Fund leadership pipeline programs. Yeah, I am totally biased because this is what my organization does. But we need to stop complaining about the lack of leaders of color in the field, an essential element of capacity building work for many communities, and start funding leadership pipeline programs. Even if you don’t agree with my assertion that not everyone needs to learn to fish, you can’t deny that you can’t teach someone to fish when there’s no one there on the pier to be taught.

Provide multi-year general operating funds. So many capacity building practices perpetuate what I call the Capacity Trap. This is when the funds you give a nonprofit actually hurts them because it forces them to spend their limited time and energy on things that will not further their organization’s development. As an example, a colleague of mine had received a 12K capacity building grant. None of the money could be used to pay his wages as the ED, or for the org’s rent or utilities, things that his org desperately needed. The 12K would all go to consultants and facilitators for retreats. He had been struggling with finding funding to pay his own wages and was thinking of quitting the work. The 12K, if it had been allowed to be used to pay for my friend to remain in his position, or even to pay for rent so he didn’t have to freak out about it, would much more likely allow the organization to build its capacity. The restrictions put on by so many capacity building grants actually prevent capacity from being built. 

Invest in intermediaries who can provide operations support. Figuring out who to outsource to and other capacity building strategies can be daunting, especially to organizations led by marginalized communities. Intermediaries who can navigate these relationships, or who may just be one-stop shops for capacity-building services, may be extremely helpful. Some intermediaries serve as fiscal sponsors, allowing for nonprofits to focus on delivering services instead of spending endless frustrating hours in legal compliance and financial management. 

Invest in intermediaries who can aggregate and distribute funding. This year, my organization has been teaching our fellows to write grant proposals. Some of them pick it up really quickly. But the reality is that it still takes organizations a lot of time to learn to do it, and then to actually do it. If some intermediaries who have relationships with funders can just aggregate funding and then distribute out to smaller nonprofits, it may save everyone time. Foundations can manage one large grant, versus 20 or 30 smaller grants, and the smaller nonprofits don’t have to spend so much time struggling with grants, which are often inequitable. Of course, we have to be careful that the majority of the funding reaches the smaller organizations and is not hoarded by the intermediaries (see this post on Trickle-Down Community Engagement).


chihuahua-1031827_1280After sending in ten fellows into ten organizations led by communities of color, a huge lesson my organization has learned is that we need to completely shift the way we do capacity building for grassroots organization led by marginalized communities. So many are forced to waste time doing things that they have little energy, experience, staffing, or interest in doing. These capacity building activities are critical. We can’t ignore them, but who is doing them and why needs to be questioned.

If we want our sector to be effective in tackling complex societal problems, then we need to allow nonprofits to specialize in what they’re good at. We have incredible organizations that are great at protesting unfair labor laws, getting people to talk about race relations in light of terrible events, coordinating culturally responsive after-school programs, mobilizing people of color to vote, creating economic opportunities for small-business owners, etc. Funders and partners need to do everything we can to free up these organizations’ time and energy so they can focus on doing these important things.

Now that we have a year of programming behind us, RVC this year will spend some time figuring out our role as a social-justice-focused capacity building intermediary organization; it will likely involve strengthening our fellowship program along with tackling operations and funding aggregation to allow our fellows and partner organizations to do what they’re good at.

The era of teach-a-man-to-fish capacity building is over. If there’s an amazing fisherman, let them fish. But if someone is a brilliant carpenter, doctor, beatboxer, or other important professions in our society, stop forcing them to fish also. Just give them the fish so they can focus on building houses, helping injured people, or dropping sick beats.

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  • Amen!

  • Mark

    lots to think about on a Monday morning

  • mfg

    If you haven’t read already, you may enjoy The Self Help Myth by Erica Kohl Arenas. She touches on a number of these points.

  • caitlin hayward

    In Conclusion, 2nd paragraph: I’m thinking we want an EFFECTIVE sector 😉

  • Eileen Coogan

    One of the nuns on my board – always encouraging us to work for social justice – says “you can teach a person to fish, but what happens when there is a fence around the pond ….”

    • Cloggie

      If you have that kind of relationship, please give her a high five or hug from me, the next time you see her. That is so beautifully put.

  • I enjoyed this post. Question for you – where does the work of “capacity building organizations” fit into this? The Center for Nonprofit Excellence, where I work, aggregates professional development services, consulting, training, and peer mentorship into one org to serve our whole geographic area. We strongly believe in the mindset that making nonprofits stronger will make our community stronger. How do you see that fitting in here from the perspective of funders and your suggestions above?

  • Maria Batayola

    Love the idea of RVC as RSJ intermediary capacity building org. Count me in.
    Maria (Batayola) Jump Start

  • elisabeth albers

    Thank you for the insights. I particularly agree with the notion that specialized skills should be outsourced and cheerfully funded. Indeed, after reading this my Monday sucks less….again!

  • “Honestly, so many of the leaders, especially leaders from marginalized communities, are sick of getting everything except money to just hire skilled people to do stuff.”

    Seriously. And your point about how nonprofits are treated like impoverished communities is pretty spot-on. Over and over, we see that the most efficient and effective way to move people out of poverty is to pay them. But, for whatever reason, we want to do anything but pay them. We want to “train” them or “acculturate” them or “guide” them in hopes that some magical undiscovered moneyed entity will actually pay them.

    It’s as if the entire social sector is playing one long, crazy game of “Not it!”.

  • Carol Clarke

    You always give me food for thought, Vu – makes me feel like I might be growing and learning or something.

  • Meechi

    I love this… and as a current funder (previous staff at a scrappy social justice organization) I continue to wonder and ask, how is this conveyed to funders? How is the best way to have these conversations with providers? In my experience there are few organizations that have honest conversations about what is needed, even when asked, rather than what they think funders should hear.

  • rurugby

    Absolutely outstanding. Letting people do what they are best at works better for everyone.

  • Ron Ein

    Capacity-building is another jargon term for administration, for all those infrastructure functions that support the front lines work, meet legal oversight requirements, and create transparency to the public (unless you are running a political PAC seeking to hide its donors!). Is it possible to create an organization that could provide a menu of these services to small NFPs? What might a cooperative administrative services organization look like? Many large corporations use specialized outside services for legal, accounting, HR, and other functions. We already have consultants for many of these functions. What if a group of small organizations combined resources to create an owned entity?

  • Donald Crocker

    Hi Vue! Thanks as always for stimulating the discussion.

    I agree that unwanted capacity building forced by funders and grantmakers pushing for capacity building activities without providing adequate funding or assessing readiness and interest usually results in wasted time and energy for everyone (the nonprofits and the grantmakers alike)!

    However, I am wary of explanations like “lack of staffing”, “not enough time or energy”, or “good capacity building is too expensive” as reasons for not engaging in efforts to build organizational capacity. Especially in small grassroots organizations, these explanations for avoiding capacity building work can lead to a lack of cohesion and focus in the work, “burnout”, and lost opportunities to reach more people in need with better, more appropriate and desired services. Effective strategic planning, for example, can often be done inexpensively (we’ve seen small, grassroots organizations find ways to do this on their own), and result in increased staff energy and focus (especially when the plan priorities are used by both staff and board in their day-to-day work and not in a document sitting on a shelf).

    It might benefit us to take note of the many small, grassroots organizations working to make the world a better place for people with disabilities that have embraced capacity building. Their work on board building, strategic planning, fund development and financial planning, and other CB activities has led to increased employment opportunities for people with disabilities, expansion of curb cuts and ramps even in poor communities, and a greater awareness of the many ways in which people with disabilities are marginalized (and how we can change this). As small nonprofits, I would urge finding some time and energy and identifying practical, inexpensive methods for capacity building. Some of my friends at these organizations who didn’t know how to fish (and didn’t really want to fish), now are enthusiastic about their newly developed “fishing” skills.

    On another note, the good news is that a number of grantmakers are getting smarter in how they support capacity building. GEO has done some excellent work to build understanding in the field, emphasizing the need to have capacity building be collaborative, contextual, and continuous. We are seeing a number of grantmakers include multi-year general operating funding as part of a package with capacity building support. Of course, we at the Support Center/Partnership in Philanthropy like the “leadership programs” and “intermediary” ideas here (yeah, I am totally biased because this is what the Support Center does). 🙂 Thanks again!

  • Douglas Stewart

    The Chesapeake Bay Funders Network has pooled some of its members’ funds for a capacity-building program and followed the approach you recommend: give small grassroots groups funding for back-office support so they can continue to do what they do best, do it together more effectively, and have their administrative functions handled by a single intermediary. So I see at least one sign of this catching on in my little part of the NGO world.

  • Jennifer Vanica

    It’s time to encourage foundations to move over and let non-profits own the pond or at least own a piece of the pond so they have ownership of wealth-generating assets that can give them control of their own sense of direction, priority, creativity, and problem-solving — things that are wasted in the current have/have not structure of funders/non-profit relationships. Teaching to fish might (best case scenario) help a person eat for a lifetime but assets can set up the next generation of social change leaders and the generation after them. [Love this blog! Keep it up!]