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Transformative Organizational Change through Hybrid Capacity-Building

The following article was featured in the "What Works" section of the Spring/Summer 2011 edition of the Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal, the Philadelphia region's social impact journal.

By Russell Johnson and Peter York

“How do we get the most bang for our buck?” That’s one of the first questions nonprofits, their funders, and donors ask, especially when it comes to capacity‐building – the strengthening of the nonprogrammatic functions, operations and business of a nonprofit organization.

Traditionally, the answer has been “you get what you pay for.” At the low end, the one‐off workshop costs little but doesn’t change the organization. At the high end, extensive consulting can bring the deep  organizational transformation required to make a real difference but can be prohibitively expensive.

The North Penn Non‐Profit Academy, a unique program for nonprofit health and human services leaders, has come up with a different answer. Founded by the North Penn Community Health Foundation, the Academy has found a way to combine elements from across the spectrum of capacity-building efforts to achieve organizational behavior change much more cost‐effectively than by simply assuming that there is one best way. The Academy’s resulting ability to build the capacity of Executive Directors, Board Members, and management‐level staff serving the North Penn region of Eastern Montgomery County, Pennsylvania not only provides an innovative answer to the bang‐for‐the‐buck question but also provides a blueprint for other non‐profit communities.

The Capacity‐Building Equation

Organization‐wide capacity‐building – from strategic planning, organizational assessments, evaluations of the quality and impact of programs, infrastructure development to individualized training and technical assistance – requires a significant investment of time, in‐kind resources and money. How much it costs usually depends on three factors:

  • How many people or organizations can receive capacity‐building help at one time
  • How much a capacity‐building effort can realistically move people from rudimentary changes like new knowledge and improved motivation to the acquisition and use of more sophisticated skills and tools, toward the ultimate goal of achieving behavioral changes
  • Who the capacity‐building intervention targets for change along a continuum from individuals to groups to organizations and systems

Trainings and workshops are relatively inexpensive because they serve many people simultaneously and focus primarily on building the knowledge of individuals. Consulting engagements are expensive because they are attempting to habituate, acculturate and systematize specific skills, tools, behaviors, actions and business practices within one group or organization. Based on these assumptions, common sense and research suggest that the cost of changing individual knowledge, motivations and skills is low, while the cost of changing organizational behaviors is high. The question the North Penn Academy experiment is partly designed to answer is whether the second half of that conclusion has to be true.

To read the rest of the article, visit Philadelphia Social Innovations' website.