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.