Christine Letts

Capacity building and infrastructure in Non-Profits

Adaptive capacity in nonprofit organizations focuses attention and energy on strong management systems, knowledge of performance, and measurement of programs and services.

However, there is now a persistent perception that dollars allocated to general capacity building – and particularly personnel and other administrative costs – are essentially “lost” when compared to direct service investments. Nonprofit leaders often go through Herculean efforts to reflect that their organizations spend the least amount possible on administrative costs.

Disincentives for creating adaptive capacity include the following:

  • The mindset and mission commitment that bring staff and board members to the organization in the first place
  • The increasing interest funders have in seeing their dollars allocated to direct service and program

An organization with adaptive capacity is one with the ability and tools to measure its performance and adjust its behaviors, programs and services accordingly.

Specifically, the capacity to adapt in high performance nonprofits is demonstrated in an organization’s sustained ability to rigorously:

  • Assess its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
  • Collect stakeholder data and feedback regularly
  • Act on the knowledge it acquires by strategically seizing new opportunities or adapting specific behaviors and activities needed to improve performance
  • Measure both its organizational and programmatic performance and results to further the mission

Adaptive capacity links mission to outcomes and pushes nonprofits to ask and seek the answers to questions such as:

  • How are we performing?
  • Are we delivering on our mission?
  • How can we improve our performance?
  • How can we measure quality?

Content quoted and adapted entirely from the Association for Volunteer Administration Newsletter.

Christine Letts is the Associate Director and Rita E. Hauser Lecturer in the Practice of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. She is also one of the co-authors of High Performance Nonprofit Organizations: Managing Upstream for Greater Impact.

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