Building Capacity: Funders & Nonprofit Leaders Share Insights

Building Capacity: Funders & Nonprofit Leaders Share Insights

Gloris Estrella, Program Manager

One of the best things about working at Philanthropy Northwest is learning and experiencing all the awesome things our members doing in our communities. This includes working with the Washington Statewide Capacity Collaborative (SCC), a philanthropy partnership "to invest, align and pool resources to build the capacity of the nonprofit ecosystem.”

Based on the results of SCC's Washington State Leadership Scan, a margins-to-center approach to learning more about the capacity-building needs of our nonprofit sector, this group of funders has begun convening learning circles to discuss challenges and opportunities in more depth. We began in Walla Walla, Washington earlier this month, where The Giving Practice's Fisher Qua and I met with 43 community leaders from the local nonprofit and philanthropy sector.

Fisher Qua facilitates the SCC's Walla Walla convening of funders and nonprofit leaders.

This program was co-designed with local nonprofits and foundation leaders to make the experience relevant, productive, practical and fun. In their own words:

Kari Isaacson, Blue Mountain Community Foundation

The meeting was high-energy and always interesting; it felt good to move about and connect with so many different people. Grant seekers, grantmakers and the communities they serve, coming together to build a community’s capacity. Walla Walla is rich in talent and people committed to the common good!

Our mission is to grow as a charitable resource — source of grants and scholarships — for our communities. A major takeaway for me was to better focus on building the community’s capacity as well as a nonprofit or an individual’s capacity. We can only build the capacity of our community working with others — it may be a focused, short-term collaboration or it may be a sustained effort towards achieving a major goal. Both are needed.

James Payne, Fort Walla Walla Museum

In addition to gaining some tools that can help with capacity-building for our community, there was a significant bonus by getting this group together. A gathering of executive directors is a powerful thing; I felt stronger bonds developing which will lead to wonderful things. There is a lot of interest in collaborative efforts to address community needs and challenges. We need to bring EDs together more often.

J. Andrew Rodriguez, Commitment to Community

People seemed hungry for exactly this type of collaboration. I sensed some angst about the profound leadership changes happening in and coming to our community. The donor class is aging at a faster rate than maybe people expected (if people were even expecting this phenomenon). As one student in a Sherwood Trust community leadership class once characterized the biggest challenge his nonprofit was facing: “Our donors are dying.”

The discussions revealed to me that there is a gap between boards that want to reflect diversity in the community, and potential board members who simply don’t know what to expect if they take the leap of faith to join a board. That is an entirely bridgeable gap — it just takes will, energy, effort, patience and persistence. But taking these steps is essential to strengthening community capacity.

Anne-Marie Schwerin, YWCA of Walla Walla

There is a need for individual capacity building; people want to improve their personal skills and have opportunities for reassurance and to check in. There is also a need for capacity-strengthening at the organizational level and more project collaboration. The “overhead” discussion was so prominent in a session on capacity-building; it would be a good discussion to have as a sector, led by people who are working on this issue from the accounting and messaging standpoints. I was surprised that the fishbowl focused so much on it, but if that’s where people are, that’s important to know.

Continuing the Conversation

I left the meeting inspired by the energy in the room. There was a shared sense of responsibility and accountability for strengthening Walla Walla's nonprofit ecosystem. We will check back with the group later this fall, as the learning circles convene in other parts of the state.

For more information, I encourage you to read the Washington Leadership Scan report and attend the Statewide Capacity Collaborative's Wednesday morning session during our conference in Missoula, Montana next month.

We'd also love to hear more from funders across our network. How are you supporting capacity-building challenges in your communities? How do we ensure that everyone's voice is truly heard?

Gloris Estrella is Philanthropy Northwest's program manager. She can be reached at


Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 08/18/2016 - 12:14pm

This sounds so interesting! I look forward to hearing more about how the process evolves. Thanks Gloris!