Subscribe | Print Page | Sign In | Join
News: Events

Conference Speaker Blog: Leading a Process for Effective Funder-Capacity Builder Outcomes Planning

Tuesday, October 9, 2018   (1 Comments)
Share |

All for One: Leading a Process for Effective Funder-Capacity Builder Outcomes Planning

“What do you mean there’s a coup?” my boss asked in an exasperated tone.
“They were worried what we’d ask them so they’re meeting without us,” I responded.
“I don’t understand. We’ve always been transparent” she said, “What happened?”

First, some context. I’ve been leading capacity building efforts for over 12 years, first at United Way of New York and for the past 8 years at the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development. When our Deputy Commissioner challenged us to create meaningful outcomes, to better share our impact or tell our story to the next administration, we invited all 16 capacity building providers to a participatory planning process.  We could have mandated new outcome measurement requirements but opted for the more challenging and time consuming collaborative approach, believing in the power if the whole to create a better product. 

Our organization funds hundreds of nonprofits to deliver a wide range of community programs (from after school to senior services) and has been investing in capacity building for 15 years. We allocate over $9 million annually towards capacity building which support access to training, consulting and various other resources. Our commissioner and Deputy Commissioner were both Capacity Building Assistant Commissioners. We’re hardly the type of organization that doesn’t believe in or understands capacity building. Yet, despite the freshly baked doughnuts, coffee, and brightly colored décor, nothing could’ve  eased the tension during the first meeting. 

Unearthing the Tension
Before our first meeting, we hired a consultant to help us develop a capacity building theory of change.  We used this work to galvanize our team around strategic goals, and agree on how we work with our capacity building providers and the funded nonprofits who receive the support. 

For the outcomes planning, we hired another consultant to help us facilitate the conversation with our capacity building providers. We wanted an external facilitator who could help us and our consultants remain open to new ideas and hold them accountable to follow up action steps. Because it appeared we had all the key elements for a successful collaborative conversation (an enlightened funder and a skilled facilitator), we didn’t anticipate what materialized.  

The initial few minutes were tense on both sides.  Our team and the consultants were hesitant to speak and the conversation felt forced and drawn out, like pulling teeth. We discovered that, despite our good intentions, our consultants organized a separate meeting because they were concerned our request to engage them was really a ruse for decisions we had already made. Our talented facilitator was quick to observe that something was amiss and asked if we needed to address something before starting the planning process. She gave our providers the space to express their concerns and us the opportunity to reiterate our intentions with the planning process. We did our best to express our genuine interest in developing outcomes that we could  all agree to and measure. After our facilitator gauged the room to make sure we were ready to move on, she laid out the plan to discuss and explore how we would collaboratively create and measure meaningful outcomes.

Eventually, everyone seemed more relaxed and you could hear an increasing conversational buzz as we split into smaller groups and started sharing and discussing ideas. 

The Planning Process
Even though we were able to clear the air, our facilitator was steadfast in her focus to create a practical plan. She knew from experience that planning conversations can leave groups of people with ideas but no map to execute and implement. We started by reviewing our theory of change and talked about the difficulties of measuring capacity building outcomes. Consultants shared how each one was providing a wide breadth of services, such as on-site consulting, coaching, training, publications, panel discussions or toolkits, which made measuring outcomes more difficult. They had a lot of questions, such as:  

  • How can we prove causal change from a one-day training? 
  • How will we know if participants adopt new knowledge at their jobs? 
  • How will we know if they have the support of their supervisors? 
  • How do you measure organization-wide change? 
  • How do all these interventions impact program quality? 

We chose to refine our focus on two of our most significant investments, cohort trainings and consulting engagements, instead of measuring all our interventions. We had lively discussions on the various ways we could measure each but our facilitator made sure to keep us focused on indicators that could be reasonably implemented and analyzed. Want the juicy details, attend my workshop.  

The Outcome of Outcomes Planning
Prior to our outcomes planning discussions, we collected mostly statistics on the number of people trained or data on whether someone received a certain kind of support. We knew we needed more data in order to construct a more coherent narrative on the impact of capacity building. Although we are still working through the measures we created together, we noticed a significant change in the type of information we receive. Our providers know it is a priority for us and are much more entrepreneurial in their approach. They don’t wait for us to direct them anymore but instead regularly meet at their organizations to discuss outcomes, share information with each other, and in some cases, hire staff dedicated to study, analyze and use outcomes data. The quality of reporting is much more detailed, comprehensive, and easier for us to use at our agency and to share with other stakeholders. 

Lessons learned:

  • Don’t assume your funded partners are on board.  Be mindful of the fact that, as funders, how you’re perceived might be very different than what you think. Be forthright with what you’re observing and be willing to accept responsibility for any challenges in the relationship.  It’s much harder for your funded partners to bring these issues up than it is for you to create an honest, open environment. 
  • Be patient with the process.  We all know that change comes at the speed of trust.  Outcomes in and of itself are very difficult to measure and capacity building outcomes are even more elusive. You will not get to a concrete plan the first or second year you engage your partners. What’s more important is that you are regularly engaging your partners on this important discussion.  By doing so, you are setting an example and gradually changing the culture of how you work together. 
  • Prioritize data analysis. Often, we focus on facilitating decision making as if that is sufficient in making changes but that is simply the start. You have to prioritize making sense of data otherwise the only result you’re left with is that you held several meetings. You need someone on your team comfortable using, interpreting, and communicating data to facilitate change and communicate meaningful outcomes. 


Gordon Holley, Humanity Financial Management Inc. says...
Posted Monday, December 3, 2018
Really interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to document!