Building Community Capacity: The Potential of Community Foundations – A New Introduction

By Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D

Increasing the abilities of its region’s nonprofits should be on the agenda of every community foundation.

Building Community Capacity: the Potential of Community Foundations relates how small community foundations can get bigger, stronger, and more useful to their communities.  This readable book, endorsed as essential reading in the field of philanthropy, summarizes the work of the Ford/MacArthur Leadership Program for Community Foundations.  Operating from 1987 to 1993, this initiative is the best I’ve seen at incorporating principles of organizational growth and community leadership development.  The book details the critical features of this program and contains guides for making community foundations bigger, stronger, and more useful to their communities.  

Lessons for Philanthropic Effectiveness

This book shows how an established private foundation can stimulate the growth of less established and more local community foundations. In turn, these community foundations became better able to stimulate the effectiveness of nonprofits in their region. The book makes clear how the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation promoted these developments through the activities of this highly productive initiative.  For one thing, they gave incentive for community leadership by dangling a meaningful financial match on favorable terms.  Second, they offered a five-year term of support and assistance.  Third, they shared the lessons of this on-going program evaluation, first within the group of participating foundations (with the on-going publication of CF – The Magazine for Growing Community Foundations), and then more broadly to the entire field of institutional philanthropy (with the publication of this book.) The world of community foundations is still feeling these effects.

Lessons for Community Development

The concept of “community capacity” as something distinct from organizational capacity emerged from the experience of this program.  We see it as “the combined influence of a community’s commitment, resources, and skills which can be deployed to build on community strengths and address community problems.”  Increasing the abilities of nonprofits and other community-building organizations should be on the agenda of every community foundation.

Lessons for Program Evaluation

The evaluation inquiry conducted throughout this project drew on an “organizational capacity building framework” created from our earlier discovery and presentations of growth factors in emerging community foundations.  With every site visit, participating community foundations and evaluators elaborated on the observations they’d collected, essentially narrating the growth of their capacity over a five-year period.  Our inquiry into the factors contributing to the growth of a community foundation – both in its financial assets and simultaneously in its community leadership – became the basis of our “transfer of knowledge” approach to evaluation.

Lessons for Nonprofit Management

Almost every community in America and increasingly throughout the world has a community foundation.  Most of them are eager to import project dollars from larger institutional funders and distribute them to nonprofits in support of local goals and projects.  This book shows how local nonprofits can make themselves attractive to such community-focused grantmaking, and useful to their communities.


The evaluation activities of this leadership initiative yielded a wealth of information which was made public in several forms. Last of all was the capstone book described on this page (free download available below). But before that was a series of magazine-like articles on all we were learning under the heading of “Community Leadership” and “Asset Development,” the two primary frontiers of “Growing Usefulness” that Ford and then MacArthur were intent on exploring. You can see these magazines, called CF – The Magazine for Growing Community Foundations (its title borrowed from “Inc – The Magazine for Growing Businesses“) here.


Participating Community Foundations

Round 1

Arizona Community Foundation

Dade Community Foundation

Dayton Foundation

El Paso Community Foundation

Community Foundation of Greater Greenville

Community Foundation of Greater Memphis

Rochester Area Foundation

Community Foundation for Southeastern Michigan

Round 2

Baltimore Community Foundation

Community Foundation of Greater Lorain County

Madison Community Foundation

Greater New Orleans Foundation

Central New York Community Foundation

Greater Richmond Community Foundation

Spokane Inland Northwest Community Foundation

East Tennessee Foundation

Greater Triangle Community Foundation

Tucson Community Foundation

Round 3

Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro

Delaware Community Foundation

Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation

Fargo-Moorhead Area Foundation

Greater Santa Cruz County Community Foundation

Maine Community Foundation

Rockford Community Trust

Sacramento Regional Foundation

Vermont Community Foundation


(Rev. 18 March 2024)

How to cite this cover article: Mayer, Steven E., Building Community Capacity: The Potential of Community Foundations – A New Introduction, Minneapolis: Effective Communities Project. Downloaded from EffectiveCommunities.com, [month, date, year]. Our original publication, written with support of the Ford Foundation, can be cited this way: Mayer, Steven E., Building Community Cap