Adapting Capacity Building During COVID-19

  • By Social Sector Accelerator, April 20, 2020

How do we support strong nonprofit organizations in the midst of a global crisis? As capacity builders, if we are committed to providing support that is contextual, continuous and collective, then how do we adapt our support to be just that? GEO’s Capacity Building Champions, a community of GEO members who are passionate about stronger nonprofit partners, convened recently to discuss how grantmakers are adapting their capacity strengthening offerings to meet the needs of their grantee partners and communities during the COVID-19 crisis.

Adaptations fell into three broad categories and regardless of approach or shift, all adaptations were grounded in the experiences and needs of their grantee partners who are on the frontlines of this crisis.

Hitting pause, taking stock, asking meaningful questions and rethinking current programming

The Carney Family Charitable Foundation is leaning into the silver lining of this moment – the early relationships that grantee partners established through participation in the Foundation’s capacity building program. They met as a group just two weeks before state guidance on COVID-19 was issued. While the Foundation is doing its part to maximize flexibility, offer gap funding, and un-restrict grants, the six grantee partners participating in this program have been supporting one another and sharing resources. Close communication with these partners is enabling the Foundation to understand the vastly uneven impacts of the crisis on grantees and respond to each context appropriately.

Adapting offerings using existing relationships to offer relevant support

Community Memorial Foundation (CMF), a healthcare conversion foundation in the western suburbs of Chicago has provided organizational strengthening support for their grantees since its inception 25 years ago. Before the COVID-19 crisis, CMF had already decided to center its 25th anniversary activities on an enhanced capacity building program focused on building financial resilience. The Foundation retained Fiscal Management Associates to develop a four-part workshop series on financial resilience. These workshops are now shifting to virtual offerings. Grantees that participate in the workshops and develop a financial resilience plan are eligible for a $20,000 grant to build financial resilience. These grants are above and beyond the Foundation’s 5% payout and are in addition to normal grantmaking activities for the year. The Foundation also partners with HR Source, to provide HR support for its grantees. Simultaneously, CMF is bumping up its spring cycle grants and partnering with local grantmakers in their community to direct more resources to COVID-19 emergency fund.

Moving from in-person to online gatherings to build skills and share knowledge

With a convening of their capacity building program already on the calendar for early April, the H. E. Butt Foundation converted their meeting to a virtual gathering with a commitment to holding the space for however partners found most useful. Instead of letting this crisis create distance and detachment, this gathering enabled partners to share and create a space for connection and peer sharing. By focusing on relationship strengthening and keeping tech simple, the Foundation was able carve out space for hospitality, unity and maintaining a semblance of normalcy in abnormal times.

Our organization, the Social Sector Accelerator, is partnering with the Oak Foundation on a series of cohort-based capacity building projects to support grantee partners. The original design relied heavily on in-person gatherings to build connections and new skills. Instead of postponing these gatherings, we are re-imagining these gatherings as optional opportunities for grantee partners to come together in a dynamic virtual space that will center relationship building, learning and innovation. We are simultaneously embracing the “new normal” of virtual peer learning and building our own capacity and comfort with the technology, tools and facilitation practices to do more than simply create a substitute for in-person learning but reimagine it entirely.

Questions Foundations Are Asking

Some of the underlying questions that helped spur different grantmakers’ adaptations to their capacity building program included: What are we considering beyond immediate relief efforts? As we move into recovery or even an extended crisis period, what opportunities exist to strengthen organizations?

  • In a moment that is spurring many organizations to look inward, how do we provide support that spurs connectivity and collaborative problem-solving?
  • What practices are no longer serving us or our grantee partners? How did these practices contribute to the crisis that our partners are experiencing now?
  • Our grantee partners are experiencing this crisis differently, so how do we contextualize our support to address our partners’ unique needs?
  • What, of our current programs or our response to the crisis, may be perpetuating exclusion and hindering equity?

Looking Ahead

Swift adaptation during this crisis is essential and, as evidenced by the over 600 grantmakers who have signed on to the philanthropic Call to Action, we are lessening restrictions on current grants, reducing what we ask of grantee partners, and lending our voices to advocate for important public policy changes to deliver an equitable and just emergency response. The future is now – we invite you to join the Champions community as we re-imagine capacity strengthening support to abandon practices which undermine the success of our nonprofit partners and lean into practices that support the resiliency and vibrancy of the social sector.