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Nonprofit Capacity Building on a Shoestring

For community development corporations and other nonprofits, the work of building capacity is never done. Whether you’ve launched new initiatives or programs, experienced staff turnover or weathered changes in your local environment, your organization will need to build or rebuild capacity from time to time. Unfortunately, many nonprofits operate with thin margins and have little in the way of resources to devote to staff training or consultant expertise.

MACDC President Joe Kriesberg

We spoke with Joe Kriesberg, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations (MACDC), for his thoughts on how CDCs can boost their capacity without spending a lot of money. His advice? Drink coffee.

“I ask people to have to have coffee all the time,” says Kriesberg. For example, “if I want to learn about RAD [Rental Assistance Demonstration], I will call someone who knows about RAD and ask if we can have coffee and they can explain it to me. I can learn more in a 45-minute coffee than in a training,” he continues, because he is directing the conversation and learning exactly what he needs to learn. In turn, Kriesberg makes himself available to peers and colleagues to talk about topics in which he has expertise.

In other words, build out your professional network and actively use those connections. Kriesberg says he has a range of connections with expertise in different topics. That gives him many potential opportunities to build his knowledge. He also advises looking at the possible racial, gender and age barriers that are constraining your professional network, and reaching out intentionally to overcome them. So often, he points out, our networks are composed of people who look much like ourselves. It can feel awkward to pursue connections with colleagues older or younger than ourselves, or of different genders and backgrounds, but with our different perspectives we have much to offer one another.

Kriesberg also suggests that CDCs create a culture of mentoring within their organizations, tasking senior staff with mentoring younger staff. You can also find external mentors for your staff, even in the absence of a formal program. Don’t be afraid to ask a friend or colleague from outside your organization if they would mentor a young staffer who would benefit from a relationship with a seasoned professional. Says Kreisberg, “Most of us would say yes if we were asked.”

Another easy and low-cost way to build your capacity is to read. Kriesberg recommends reading Shelterforce magazine every week to stay up-to-date on community development industry news and issues. He also recommends reading policy blogs relating to your field. “You should subscribe [to blogs and newsletters]. You should read them at night or on train home.” While it does involve a time commitment, this is one of the best ways to learn about topics related to your work and to stay current on issues and trends that affect your organization.

Kriesberg offered a final piece of advice for CDCs that don’t have money to spare: Ask for scholarships or discounts to trainings you are interested in. “The answer may be no, but more often than you think, the sponsors will find a way to get you in.”

In addition to Joe Kriesberg’s low- and no-cost strategies, here are a few capacity building resources you can check out online:

Our Institute for Comprehensive Community Development archives contain “How To Do It” articles for a multitude of community development topics.

The Foundation Center’s Grantspace offers in-person and online training, many of them free or for nominal fees, and also archives videos of its trainings that can be viewed for free. Topics include fundraising, organizational leadership and board development.

Grantspace also provides a set of links to other capacity building resources and literature.

The Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF) website includes a section called Nonprofit Finance 101. Among the think pieces are some tools to help you gauge your organization’s financial picture (Financial Self-Assessment Worksheet) and pointers for improvement.

The National Council of Nonprofits also provides some helpful financial learning tools.

Finally, check with your state’s CDC association about training or scholarships they may offer. For example, the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations sponsors the Mel King Institute for Community Building. A list of state associations can be found here.

Posted in Implementing, Leading

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