Capacity building versus capability building

tools-1083796_1280For a number of years now the notion of capacity building has been a topic of conversation in philanthropic circles. It features at discussion groups, networking events and conferences. How can philanthropy build the capacity of the non-profit sector? How can we encourage people to consider granting funds for core costs rather than just projects?

These have been important conversations and on the one hand, a way of shining a spotlight on the role that philanthropy can play in the non-profit sector’s growth and sustainability.

On the other hand, these conversations take attention away from what is a just as important, and at times more important, aspect of the conversation – capability building. Often used interchangeably, capacity and capability are two very different things.

This article by Lanny Vincent articulates it clearly, but essentially capacity refers to an amount or volume, do we have enough, do we need more, how do we grow? Capability refers to aptitude or a process that can be developed or improved, how do we do this, do we have the right skills?

All too often we see a non-profit organisation approaching a funder for capacity support perhaps in the form of a fundraising manager (to assist with organisational sustainability) or a new website (to assist with marketing and communication). While these can be considered essential by the organisation a question one may want to ask is, ‘is this organisation the best at delivering X service, and if not, what do we need to do to support them to be the best?’

For some organisations who do have high capability the best thing for philanthropy to do to support them is assist in employing a fundraising manager or develop a new website. But for many, there may be better ways to support the work that they are doing.

Philanthropy often expects non-profit organisations to change the world. Whether one child at a time through a breakfast club, or at a systemic level via advocacy and policy reform, we await big things. But to go out there and do this work non-profit organisations need the best possible skills, tools and resources – and this is often more than an issue of capacity.

Capacity and capability support is not a ‘one over the other’ proposition, both are critical.  But in the search for impact, results and sustainability we urge philanthropists to think about the capability of the organisation they are looking to support, and the role they may have in improving this.

In the coming weeks the Foundation will be announcing a refinement of our focus and priorities – this is an early sneak peek. Stay tuned…


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