TIP OF THE MONTH ARCHIVES
Hello Everyone, I just returned from an eight month assignment as a Peace Corps Response volunteer in the country of Georgia. I was based in the capital of Tbilisi and I was assigned to work with the National Ministry of Sport and Youth Affairs to help them build capacity of their youth programs. I’m not sure if this is a tip, but every organization that I have worked for over the years, whether it was a small or large NGO, is interested in building capacity – organizational capacity or capacity of a specific program. I will be getting back into the my normal routine, so please reach out if I can be of service to you. Here are a few thoughts from my longtime experience and most recent service in Georgia:
1) Everyone in the organization, from the senior level to the implementing level, has to agree that they want to build capacity. That means that there has to be agreement on priorities and funding to make it happen. And, I’m not talking about a lot of funding, but there might be a need for research software, training, new computer, travel funds, so the organization has to invest money to make money.
2) Every organization wants to serve more people, but there is always the normal workload and priorities. While everyone in the organization has to be committed to invest additional time to building capacity (i.e., attending trainings, additional travel, etc.), the organization can’t just add to the workload of the staff and expect them to do their normal work while also focusing on capacity building. There has to be agreement to put some projects on hold or hire contract staff who can do some of the routine duties while other staff work on the capacity building needs.
3) Everyone needs to have a clear idea about what increased capacity will accomplish and be able to explain this clearly to donors and partners. Being able to explain the impact that increased capacity will have on people’s lives will help build support, enthusiasm, and partners for the work that needs to occur.
4) There needs to be a good communication strategy and communication materials, so the organization can clearly state what it is striving for and why it might put other priorities on hold while it builds capacity to spring forward.
5) Of course, a special fundraising campaign needs to occur to obtain the funds needed to build capacity, but this is an outgrowth of doing points 1 – 4 well.
A good example of an organization that put things on hold in order to build capacity is Heifer Project International. The board of directors and staff agreed to invest more of their budget to build the staff and systems infrastructure needed to grow rapidly in the future. They clearly stated to their donors and agencies that monitor how much is spent for fundraising verses administration verses program and they deliberately reduced how much of their budget would go to program while they hired staff who could raise major contributions and create stronger marketing and communication materials. In about three years, Heifer Project International was able to see big increases in contributions which they invested on expanding programs. It was a gamble to cut back on program funds, but it paid off with the organization growing a lot and subsequently serving many more people around the world.
My last tip was about capacity building and sustainability and so I want to follow up that tip with my observations based on my Peace Corps Response assignment.
To realize capacity building that results in a sustainable program there has to be many things that come together, a solid strategic plan, annual work plans with specific objectives or action steps, training, financing, and monitoring and evaluation.
However, the most important part is political will at all levels of the organization. And I’m not talking about the political will that is seen when there are elections.
The head of the organization can’t unilaterally decide that he/she wants to build capacity. It can’t be driven by the field staff if they don’t have support from the leaders. Supervisors or mid-management are often caught in the middle and they might be pulled in two directions, so they aren’t likely to lead this effort.
Whether the need for capacity building is initiated from the top or from the field, to be successful all staff, volunteer leaders, and partners have to agree that it is important and they will set time aside from their normal duties to sit down together to plan, make decisions, budget, and develop a timetable.
Holding these meetings among all staff and doing the planning requires time which is very precious in most organizations. With the weight of day-to-day activities, it is easy to push planning back and allow other pressing items to fill that time. However, that is when an organization’s resolve becomes important. Without a good plan, an organization can drift aimlessly for years. Also, a good plan saves time and money in the long-run. It helps the organization to stay focused and not “chase” funds for projects that aren’t the priorities for the agency. This saves time, money, and resources in the long-run which means more people served and a higher likelihood of a sustainable program.
Friends, I’m doing a short-term Peace Corps assignment in the Republic of Georgia, helping Georgian NGOs with capacity building. Capacity building means different things to different people but here is my view of what capacity building is all about. It is the essence of sustainability, since helping any organization to expand its program has to be done in a manner that helps that organization to continue to grow on its own with no, or minimal, outside support. The initial investment might require outside financial, technical and consulting help, but in the long run that organization should be able to continue the program and grow through its own efforts. So capacity building should help an organization to do a proper self-analysis of its strengths and weaknesses. The organization should also review its staffing needs, management systems, monitoring and evaluation efforts, and financial reporting systems. Donors will consider funding capacity building if they are assured that the organization will use the funding well and be able to report back to them on the results of the capacity building effort, including how the organization will continue the progress and build sustainable funding into the programs and the overall organization. More on this subject next month with some insight into how this is working in Georgia.
I have been out of the country so there has been a gap in time since my last tip. I am getting back on track now…
While traveling to Korea for the Rotary International Convention, I was also able to visit my old Peace Corps site and visit Korean friends from when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer many years ago. I’m mentioning this because during my travels, I was reminded about two things: 1) There is a difference between results and impact, and 2) Sometimes we won’t know the true impact of our results for many years into the future.
For example, my Korean friends and other Koreans talked more about the motivation that Peace Corps volunteers had on them, and not necessarily the skills that were taught. They commented that Americans taking time from their families and careers to help them motivated them to want to help their fellow citizens. The point is that as Peace Corps volunteers we would measure our results in regard to activity, trainings, people reached, but it wasn’t for many years later that we couldknow our impact. Of course, donors and partners want to receive reports on results and impact, but it isn’t always easy to measure impact within a short duration project timetable. NGOs’ responsibility should be to educate donors that behavior change takes a long time and sustained effort. Another example is that many people in the U.S. didn’t start using seat belts in their cars after the advertisements came out many years ago. There had to be sustained education and effort to convince the public to the benefit of using seat belts for theirs and their family’s safety.
So, continue to measure results, but your boards of directors and staff and volunteers should also talk about long-term impact and how to measure that and report back to donors and partners.
This Tip of the Month for May is being “borrowed” from a friend’s Facebook post but it is definitely worth repeating as a reminder to all of us that we can accomplish a lot with the right attitude.
10 Things That Require Zero Talent: 1) Being on time, 2) Work Ethic, 3) Effort, 4) Body Language, 5) Energy, 6) Attitude, 7) Passion, 8) Being Coachable, 9) Doing Extra, and 10) Being Prepared.
What is true for individuals is also true for non-profit organizations, “Your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude.”
Recently a national organization helping veterans was criticized for extravagant senior staff spending on meetings and items that many major donors and volunteers thought were inappropriate. This issue raises the question of the role and responsibilities of the board of directors and senior staff; and whether an organization has a clear whistle blower policy in place. The board of directors and senior staff should work well together, but also hold themselves accountable for abiding by their roles and responsibilities. These roles and responsibilities should be clearly outlined in documents such as the bylaws, standard operating procedures, job descriptions, and conflict of interest statements that board members and senior staff should be signing. It is also very helpful to annually dedicate time at a retreat or board meeting to review these documents and procedures, and to have an open discussion about whether the board of directors and senior staff are comfortable raising concerns or difficult issues. It is much better to clear the air and discuss these issues privately, even in Executive Session, then to have issues simmering underneath the surface until they boil over or an outside party exposes breaches of ethical behavior that gives the whole organization a black eye. The board should know, and are responsible for asking questions, if inappropriate actions bordering on unethical behavior are taking place.
Most organizations don’t say thank you effectively to their donors and volunteers. Thank you’s don’t have to be lengthy, but they are best when they are personalized. Of course, sometimes when there are many donors/volunteers to thank, it isn’t possible to personalize each thank you. If your staff and board members can take time to have a “note writing party” especially when you are having a board meeting, then each board member could write 5 to 10 thank you notes while conducting the board or committee meeting. Staff can write notes during staff meetings or on a designated “note writing day”. It is always best if the thank you note relates to the donor’s interests. For example, if the donor likes to benefit children, then the note can make a point of saying how many children will benefit from the contribution. By the way, thank you notes can be written anytime, such as when a supporter or volunteer has been recognized locally or by their college or when something the donor is interested in is featured in the news. Finally, if a thank you is sent in a mass mail or email message, then highlight a specific way that the support has benefited someone’s life, such as “…your support has helped Maria to go to high school, a dream she had since she was a little girl”. It is important for donors and volunteers to hear the number of people helped, but they also need a mental picture of someone helped to bring it back to the human aspect of the mission. Take a few minutes with staff and board members to think about creative ways to thank donors and volunteers and bond them to your mission.
Fund-raising is really relationship building and educating supporters about the need, the mission, and how your organization is having an impact. This is true for donors who contribute at all levels. While smaller sum donors can’t all be visited, the education and relationship building that is done for major donors still needs to take place with donors at all levels. No matter the level of donation, supporters want to know that their donation is making a difference, meeting a real need, and helping to achieve the mission. With smaller sum donors, these three key points might be in a letter, email or social media posting. With middle level donors, there might be series of house parties and the program at these events still stresses these points when the program is presented. With major donors, these points must be in the presentation materials that are reviewed personally with the donor. Most importantly, all donors will want to know that, figuratively, “the organization is feeding 100 people per day”, but in reality, the donors want to know how the organization is getting people out of the soup kitchen and back into productive lives. Share information with donors that goes beyond the immediate results and how the organization is changing lives.
Create a list of all your board members' skills especially beyond the direct connection to the mission, i.e., a public health NGO needs public health experts on its board of directors, but also board members with training skills, special event skills, finance skills or other skills. Create a list of all skills needed by the organization, so you can see where there are gaps on the board. When recruiting new board members, recruit to round out the board with all the skills that are needed beyond the skills directly related to the mission. And, don't assume that where someone works during the day is also the volunteer job that he or she wants to do. For example, people who work at banks don't always want to serve as treasurers! Be sure that your board of directors is diverse in every way possible.