Building Organizational Capacity: A Simple Useful Framework

Twelve building blocks of strong nonprofit organizations

Nonprofit organization capacity building
Building strong bodies twelve ways

Editor’s note: Some of you may not have been around when Classic White Wonder Bread was almost all there was in the bakery section of your store.  Its slogan at the time was “Helps build bodies 12 ways,” a reference to the essential strength-building ingredients allegedly baked into every loaf of goodness.  Some might say that Classic White Wonder Bread is the essence of Whiteness, as is Organizational Capacity Building.   And yes, the linked Framework of Nonprofit Organizational Capacities reveals white bread nonprofit jargon of the kind seen in nonprofit management chat boards and used in master’s level nonprofit administration classes.  See my more recent, “Building Nonprofit Organizational Capacity: Ghosts From Our Pre-Colonial Past.”  I invite readers to come up with language more suitable to their settings, but before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, let’s dive a little deeper. 

Just a glance at the attached one–page Framework of Nonprofit Organizational Capacities should reveal their importance.  Each is an essential building block.   Each of these four areas is necessary not only for organizational survival but also for organizational excellence – doing good in all the ways your mission statement suggests.

  • Program design and activities that stand a good chance of successfully delivering valued benefits to the program’s intended beneficiaries.
  • Governance, staffing and administration that serves the advancement of the organization’s mission.,
  • Fundraising and other resource development that allows for responsible and realistic growth that advances the mission.
  • Community connections and strengthened relationships with other nonprofit or public organizations useful for advancing the mission.

No one nonprofit is likely to be excellent at all of these areas. If your nonprofit was asked how strong it performs not only in Program but in the other areas that support Program, the honest answer is likely, “Mixed: we see strengths, and we see things that could be improved.”

This is likely true not just for every nonprofit, but also for every funder of nonprofits.  Building organizational capacity is a journey with, hopefully, some momentum.

Recognize that the Framework is only a Framework – it doesn’t talk about assessing your organization’s current capacities, or ways to engage the organization in advancing it,  or how to ask for money to support upgrades.  But you may see the beginnings of how that could work in the four user-focused sections below. 


Imagine you’re putting together a big proposal to continue your primary program, which you’ve operated successfully for 2–3 years on small piecemeal grants.   You’ve made presentations to your Board and shown them good reason to be proud of this program.   Even better, they’ve given you the green light to pitch a proposal to outside funders to get three years of reliable support which they see could take the organization to the next level.   With that in mind, the Board smartly tells you, “Before you sit down to write this proposal, we think it would be helpful to do an assessment of this organization’s strengths, weaknesses, and priorities for improvement.  We think funders could be persuaded to give us a bigger shot of resources if they see that we ourselves are preparing for the most productive next three years ever.  We can call it “Proposal to Strengthen Our Program AND Upgrade Our Organizational Capacity for the Long(-er) Haul.”  We suggest you use the attached one–page Framework of Nonprofit Organizational Capacities as a checklist of areas to consider.  It’s a way to put our priorities for development in perspective.


Imagine you’re a program officer at a foundation, and you’re reviewing a proposal from a nonprofit you’ve had some experience with already, and now it wants your support again.   You and your Board know that the number one purpose of your grantmaking is to help your grantees make progress on their missions.  But they may not know that the number two purpose of a grant ought to be to help strengthen the organization, that is, to build out its capacity so it can be even more effective, and deliver even more/better “intended benefits to its intended beneficiaries” suggested by your mission.   Foundation grants can be designed to achieve both these purposes by practicing what I’ve called The Mittenthal Principle.  As a program officer, you could ask for a conversation with this repeat applicant.  In the proposed conversation you could say, “We understand that building organizational capacity, yours as well as ours, is a journey.  Let’s look at this Framework – you’re coming to us for support for Program.  What sort of upgrades to the other categories of capacity or infrastructure could pair well with the program proposal you’re presenting to us?  Would your program delivery be strengthened by including money for new staff and Board training… or for a refresh on the program’s design… or for improved bookkeeping and software… or for getting better connected with other key organizations in your network?”


Imagine that recent events have created a sense of crisis, despair, or chaos in your organization.  You recognize this could be a good time to help your organization take stock, assess the situation, and help the team refocus on how to get back on track stronger than ever. Perhaps you relate to the scenario presented above in the Nonprofit section.  Anyone interested in helping your organization get to the next level can usefully incorporate a Framework such as this into their assistance.   Note that “Learning from experience” is a major element of organizational capacity.  Recognize that a legitimate goal of an evaluation is “to improve, not prove” the organization’s work. You could design a “program evaluation” that seeks to learn how well the program is delivering its intended benefits to the intended beneficiaries as defined by the mission statement. And while you’re at it, you could also explore where improvements to the organization’s three non–program areas of organizational capacity would make the most gains on the mission.


Imagine you’re out of work or locked down until the current crisis passes and you’re getting antsy to do something useful but you don’t know what. Let’s say the work of a few interesting nonprofits has come to your attention, and you’re wondering if there are ways you could be useful to them.  The attached one–page Framework could help you see where your own skill set and values could be useful to others.  Maybe you could help them relate to new parts of their community, maybe you could open doors, maybe you have tech skills.  Or maybe you’ll be impressed enough by their website that you’re inclined to hit that Donate Here button.  They say every bit helps, and that conscious giving is better than the other kind.

Download our Framework of Nonprofit Organizational Capacities here.

Posted by Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / Effective Communities Project / Revised June 8, 2021

Originally appeared: August 2019

Number of pages: 1

Author: Steven E. Mayer