Capacity Building and the Overhead Myth

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The concept of capacity building seems to be unique to the nonprofit sector, although it's immediate definition could apply to any organization, or anyone for that matter:

Capacity building or development is the process by which individuals, groups, organizations, institutions and societies increase their abilities to: perform core functions, solve problems, define and achieve objectives; and understand and deal with their development needs in a broad context and in a sustainable manner."

Within the nonprofit sector, capacity building has gained substantial attention over the years, primarily because we all created an environment where nonprofits did the opposite: their activities consumed capacity, every bit that they had.

Why do nonprofits eat away at their capacity rather than use it to build more?

1. Nonprofits are mission-driven, to the core.

There are always more mouths to feed, babies to save, and water to clean. The job is never done and the leaders we attract to serve within nonprofits are motivated by the mission, lacking the long-term perspective of a seasoned executive.

2. Funders and donors demand it.

The unfortunate truth is that private foundations, corporate funders, and many major donors are still part of the problem: they want warm fuzzies in exchange for their cash, so they only award it to nonprofits who promise to use it for direct services.

3. Government and industry organizations made capacity building a black mark of doom.

This is the holy "overhead" percentage myth. Here in Utah, as in many states, it is printed with pride, or shame, directly on your charitable solicitations permit, supposedly as a way to protect the donor.

Industry organizations, like Guidestar, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Navigator, touted the overhead percentage as the single biggest determinant of whether a charity was worthy of a donation. Luckily, they have since removed the thorn that demanded service over capacity to serve and are trying to undo the damage.

The overhead percentage, if you're unfamiliar, is simply this: all of your spending on anything besides programs and services as a percentage of your total spending.

Charities have attempted to live up to superhuman standards: to perform their charitable services while spending as little as possible on leadership, marketing, fundraising, talent development, research, and organizational development.

The result is a nonprofit organization you should never want to invest in.

An ill-equipped executive team with zero experience leading an organization or managing its finances. The inability to attract any talent to it's employee pool. Poorly delivered services as employees receive zero development or mentoring. High turnover since employees are asked to perform miracles in a crappy office with no supplies or support.

Even more critical is that a nonprofit where 90%+ of funding is eaten up by services is extremely inefficient.

They cannot deliver their mission effectively because every dollar donated is just a dollar. It does not get multiplied by investing in marketing or fundraising where it could turn into 5, 10, or even 100 dollars. It cannot be invested in the salary to recruit a talented Executive Director with the experience and abilities required to do more and better.

Capacity building is the inverse of this mess. It is a purposeful investment of resources in increasing efficiency, engaging in strategic growth, and refining internal mechanisms for service delivery to become more effective.

Nonprofits have an obligation to seek new and even more effective ways of making tangible progress towards their missions, and this requires building organizational capacity.

All too many nonprofits, however, focus on creating new programs and keeping administrative costs low instead of building the organizational capacity necessary to achieve their aspirations effectively and efficiently…This must change: both nonprofit managers and those that fund them must recognize that excellence in programmatic innovation and implementation are insufficient for nonprofits to achieve lasting results.

Great programs need great organizations behind them.”

Effective Capacity Building in Nonprofit Organizations, Report for Venture Philanthropy Partners by McKinsey & Company (2001)

Which is your organization engaging in? Fear or hope?