Nonprofits take on capacity challenges

By Todd Cohen

[Note: I am working with Triangle Community Foundation as senior communications adviser.]

Housing for New Hope in Durham and Communities in Schools of Wake County both found a better way to collect data to help show funders their impact.

Camp High Hopes at YMCA of the Triangle found a more personal way to tell the story of its impact on kids.

And Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network found untapped support among its supporters to contribute some of the funds it needed.

Those lessons were among many that the four groups and other nonprofits learned through a program Triangle Community Foundation launched this year to help strengthen nonprofits that focus on youth literacy and community development.

The Foundation selected 22 organizations to participate in the first phase of the effort, awarding 20 of them about $2,500 each to conduct an assessment of their organizational capacity and inviting two representatives of each organization to participate in a “learning cohort.”

Of the two representatives from each nonprofit, one played a leadership role at the organization, and the other was involved either in youth literacy or community development.

“Funding and resources for capacity building are always the top struggle we hear about from nonprofits in our community,” says Lori O’Keefe, president of Triangle Community Foundation.

“We are attempting to fill this gap that many of these organizations see in their ability to build their capacity and strengthen their mission,” she says. “Having stronger nonprofits means they will be able to have a larger, collective impact on the issues they are working on in these areas.”

Capacity workshops

Participants in the learning cohort attended three workshops on topics that included how to work with consultants; data collection, evaluation and “logic modeling;” and how to tell a nonprofit’s story.

Nonprofits face a broad range of needs involving their organizational “capacity,” and they have a broad range of awareness about those needs, says Micah Gilmer, senior partner at Frontline Solutions, a consulting firm that designed and facilitated the workshops for Triangle Community Foundation.

Participants also shared with one another how they identify their organizational needs, and attended Triangle Community Foundation’s “What Matters” community luncheon in Raleigh on April 2, as well as a special session just for them with Leslie Crutchfield, the keynote speaker at the conference, who talked about the role of innovation and “collective impact” in making a difference on pressing community issues.

Story-telling

Communicating more effectively is a key need among all nonprofits, Gilmer says.

“One thing all of us can do better is being able to tell our story, and being able to talk in real terms about the people we’re touching, the lives we’re changing, and the way our work is connected to the broader challenges our state and our region face,” he says.

A big part of telling that story, he says, is to use data in a way to shows “you understand what the challenges are but also have real innovative solutions that can turn things around.”

Participants in the workshops agreed.

Karen Barlow, development specialist at YMCA of the Triangle, says that in preparing grant applications to support Camp High Hopes, a summer program for at-risk kids, she had used data to show the number of children who can or cannot read at grade level.

What she learned at the workshop on storytelling, she says, was that “you need to tell the story of the kid as much as you can because people are going to identify with him or her.”

At the workshop, led by writer Scott Huler, she says, she also learned that a good story also needs “a main character, a conflict, a climax and a resolution.”

So, instead of simply citing the percentage of elementary school students who are reading below grade level, for example,  her funding requests now might begin by saying that “Louis can barely read,” and then explain how Camp High Hopes addresses that need, and the difference it makes for Louis, she says.

What she learned, she says, was “how to bring your story to life as much as you can,” and how to “write a stronger narrative, or an application with a story,” and “illustrate your program better with a person rather than facts and figures.”

Data collection

Melissa Hartzell, development director at Housing for New Hope, a Durham nonprofit that provides access to integrated services, health care and housing for people who are homeless, was looking for a way to better collect data on its impact so it could give funders a better picture of the difference it was making.

During a conversation at one of the workshops, she says, she mentioned that her agency lacked that data to show the improvement in school among homeless children with access to stable housing.

Based on a suggestion from another workshop participant, Housing for New Hope now is working with the families it serves and the schools their children attend to obtain their test scores.

It will use that information to better tell its story to donors, Hartzell says.

Roberta Hadley, director of strategic initiatives at Communities in Schools of Wake County, says the agency also has been looking for a better way to collect data that show its impact on students it serves.

One of its community learning centers, for example, serves 60 to 65 students after school. While the students all live in the same community, they attend up to 25 different schools, making it a challenge to track data on their performance in school.

Partly as a result of the workshop session on data, Communities in Schools has centralized its data collection and now is working with staff at the central office for the Wake County Public School System to collect data, rather than having staff members at individual learning centers try to gather that data from multiple schools.

Data evaluation

Catherine Pleil, executive director of the Durham Interfaith Hospitality Network, or DIHN, says her agency is moving to a new model for delivering its services, and needed to make better sense of its data on donors and potential donors.

The agency, which has provided emergency shelter for homeless families by rotating where they stay among over 30 congregations, now aims to provide families with stationary housing.

To raise the money to do that, DIHN used its capacity-assessment grant from Triangle Community Foundation to hire consultants Moss+Ross to analyze its database of supporters.

The analysis found that, while the agency has a large database of supporters, many of them may not be contributing as much financial support as they can, reflecting untapped capacity for DIHN to raise the funds it needs to support its new strategy.

Capacity challenges

Gilmer says cuts in government funding for social services has created new capacity issues for nonprofits already facing big capacity challenges.

Not only do nonprofits face often complicated reporting requirements tied to the government funds they continue to receive, he says, but they also need to find ways to diversify their funding base as government support shrinks.

The key is to “communicate why and how they’re doing what they’re doing,” he says. “As folks encounter bureaucracy, don’t lose sight of the human element of what they’re doing. Tapping into new funding sources means in many cases learning a new language to talk about your work that conveys the value for the funders.”

In the face of government funding cuts, he says, it is important “to have a funding community that’s really well informed about the challenges that nonprofits face, and that is responsive to their needs.”

What’s next

Now that the cohort has wrapped up, many of the organizations have applied for phase two funding from the Foundation. That funding will focus on helping to put into effect strategies to improve organizational effectiveness that were identified during the assessment phase. Grantees for phase two will be announced in late summer.

“We are really excited to be working intentionally and strategically in this space, to bring together effective organizations to learn from each other, and to build their capacity as well as their drive to collaborate,” says Libby Richards, senior community programs officer for the Foundation.

“We will use the feedback garnered from this first learning cohort,” she says, “to shape the coming year’s program and look forward to seeing the impact that this investment will have on the nonprofit participants and the community.”

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