susanmisraWhat Does It Take to Get People to Participate in Capacity Building? Lessons Learned from Community Organizing - Part I

By: Susan Misra In: Governance| Management| Nonprofits

29 Aug 2011

Part 1: The Initiative

Nonprofits that focus on community organizing know a thing or two about driving participation at events. So when our team led a capacity-building initiative directed at these organizations, we decided to borrow from their playbook. We learned that applying principles such as the “rule of halves” and cultivating personal connections takes time and effort, but these techniques bring positive results, increasing participation and reducing attrition in voluntary capacity-building programs.

Nonprofits are adept at operating on scarce resources, but perhaps none is in such short supply as time. This was certainly true for the organizations that participated in the initiative we helped to lead 2008-2010, Strengthening Organizations to Mobilize Californians. Funded by The James Irvine Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the initiative involved 27 nonprofits statewide that serve underrepresented communities (read the full evaluation report.)  Participating nonprofits included the Environmental Health Coalition, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, and the Alliance for a Better Community.

The initiative held strong appeal for such organizations. Its goal was to improve their organizational capacity and, ultimately, governance in California by including a greater diversity of voices in decision making. What’s more, the initiative provided multiple opportunities to engage; all told, it offered 32 learning community events over two years, including peer exchanges, trainings, and convenings. Participants would have the chance not just to deepen their perspectives and skills in such areas as leadership and communication, but also to build their networks.

But participation was far from a given. Thirty of the events were optional. The majority of organizations received no incentives to participate. Plus, the richest capacity-building program still meant time away from serving people and communities. We understood from the start that our targeted pool of participants might-for the best of reasons-prioritize their mission-focused work above the activities we offered. But we also decided to work toward the greatest possible participation by utilizing principles and practices honed by community organizers themselves.

Susan Misra is the associate director of Program and Grants Management and Capacity Building at TCC Group, a national management consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to funders, nonprofits, and corporate citizenship programs. She has worked with clients in a variety of fields, including the arts, environment, education, community development, and social justice.

3 Responses to What Does It Take to Get People to Participate in Capacity Building? Lessons Learned from Community Organizing - Part I

Gavin Nichols

August 30th, 2011 at 8:34 am

I opened this article hoping for some useful suggestions. We have encountered this problem at our foundation quite often. Hopefully there is a Part 2 or more than one additional Part that shares how to drive participation and describes the principles and practices of community organizers.


San Antonio Area Foundation

Christopher Johnson

August 30th, 2011 at 2:39 pm


Great article and points. I work for a nonprofit resource center in north central Florida. We face similar issues and concerns. Compounding our desire to engage the nonprofits of our region is the fact we are the first such management support organization to exist for nonprofits in north central Florida.

We preach, and communicate, that our resources, programs and events are based on research and value. We have found success in communicating to the nonprofits of our region we continually conduct research to identify the needs, wants and obstacles nonprofits are facing locally. Additionally, we communicate that we, in turn, provide programming of value to address these issues facing our area nonprofits.

You’re right, time is an issue for us all, and I learned a long time ago “no time” is the only objection which cannot be overcome. So on the front end we use our “research and value” approach when communicating to the nonprofits of our region why they should utilize our valuable programming.


August 31st, 2011 at 10:26 am

Hi Gavin - Here is the link to Part II which I think you will find very helpful:

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