Is capacity strengthening support the missing piece in grantmaking? Part I


Emmanuel Otoo


The dedication that grantmakers and funders bring to facilitate equity and justice in grantmaking continues to drive the quest for stronger and more sustainable Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to enhance the attainment of their collective evolving mission. The serious thought and consideration of the key role of capacity building in this process prove just how clued-in and motivated both CSOs (grantees) and funders are in establishing a more reliable knowledge base about the potential influence of capacity building.

The co-creation of a contextually relevant set of standard measures for this is critical.

Under the current conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic and elevated struggles around racial justice issues, the question still remains about how grantmakers and funders can deploy resources to respond to the capacity building needs of grantees. Some of these issues are critical to funders and grantmakers for continuous learning and growth. The outbreak of this pandemic has contributed to a drastic transformation in global grantmaking including capacity building. The reminder is that capacity building goes beyond individual and organisational skills development to include the ability to understand the ecosystem in which the organisation operates, the skills to respond to that ecosystem, and the structures to effective operation.

An opportunity in crisis

As part of the grantmaking culture, most funders have been asking a lot of questions during this pandemic for more in-depth knowledge about their grantees and how the pandemic has impacted their programmes and roles in their field. Opportunities are usually provided for grantees to also ask questions, though more could be done in this area so that both funders and grantees could work collectively to respond effectively to emerging challenges and be positioned to sustain the facilitation of change while removing the barriers to justice and equality.

Some grantmakers and funders are collectively working to insulate the larger ecosystem from the impact of COVID-19, dismantle societal injustice and inequities, increase efficiency, effectiveness, and scale grantees’ efforts. This process involves strengthening systems, structures, and skills necessary for transformational impact. The role of capacity building is critical in this process. But some funders believe capacity building is complicated, an interference and in some cases, criticised for being stale. Others applaud it as a measure of good stewardship and a driver of efficiency. Many practitioners have acknowledged that the discourse on capacity building has not kept pace with the evolution of the sector, hence the urgency in elevating this dialogue.

A lot could be achieved if grantmakers who respond to capacity building aspire to be grantee-centred and adopt techniques for advancing growth, sustainability, and building back stronger.

Most funders describe capacity-building as the nerve-centre of transformative grantmaking. Others believe capacity building is one of the critical driving forces that help organisations, movements, networks, coalition, etc. wrestle with deep-rooted systemic issues. What is critical here is that as most funders have amended their grantmaking processes and procedures, in response to the pandemic to align with the current challenges, capacity building seems not to have received similar attention and reflections on a wider scale. Evidently, capacity-building strategies may not necessarily be the same to provide the cushioning required by grantees both during these moments and beyond. A critical issue most grantees are reflecting on during this time is how the philanthropic sector plans to equip them with a set of customised tools through capacity building to help bend the arc toward building resilience, equity, and justice. Otherwise, it would result in the inadvertent creation of impediments to fairness. No action should not be an option in this situation since it would translate to be an action against fairness and advancement. Sometimes organisations that need capacity building support the most are those highly vulnerable during these unprecedented times such as minority-centered organisations, organisations based in low-income countries (especially the Global South), where resource mobilisation is challenging. Others may be movements and networks devoted to justice for disadvantaged and marginalised populations, an area where resource mobilisation could be challenging thereby the urgency of capacity building support to bolster their efforts.

Capacity-building Choice

A lot could be achieved if grantmakers who respond to capacity building aspire to be grantee-centred and adopt techniques for advancing growth, sustainability, and building back stronger. The grantee-centred approach refers to as the ‘Capacity-building Choice’, provides opportunities for both grantees and grantmakers to embrace partnership and focus on grantees’ priorities. Many grantmakers and funders regard themselves as huge supporters and cheerleaders of grantee-centred capacity building. Thereby, facilitating a means to create systems that allow grantees to initiate the process of addressing the capacity building needs of their choice.

It is general knowledge that there are no systems more in need of urgent change than donor-initiated, donor-led, and in some cases donor-run capacity building programmes. In most situations, this approach tends to trap organisations into failing ‘partnerships’ while paralysing their growth. Over the past few decades ‘Capacity-building Choice’ has become a catchphrase for those supporting the strengthening of CSOs, especially marginalised ones, as part of their efforts in field strengthening. ‘Capacity building choice’ for CSOs and movements is one of the most important social justice issues of our time.

This is about freedom and justice – the freedom for grantees to choose what is best for their organisations, staff, departments, networks, movements, and the larger ecosystem. Grantee-centered capacity building that embraces justice and fairness supports the legacy of an effective, equitable system of CSOs advancement at their own pace while contributing to global and national development goals.

Read ‘Is capacity strengthening support the missing piece in grantmaking? Part II.

Emmanuel Otoo has several years of international experience in organisational development, human rights, social and economic justice issues. He is passionate about community-driven solutions across Sub-Saharan Africa and a promoter of Capacity Strengthening.

Tagged in: Covid-19 Funding practice

Comments (17)

Azad Oommen

Thanks Emmanuel - loved the piece. Having worked on both sides of the funder-NGO equation, I'm increasingly concerned about how little alignment there is between funders and NGOs around longer term aspirations of the NGOs and how the conversation centers around immediate deliverables. I've been intrigued by Bridgespan's Pay What It Takes approach -,grantees%20to%20accomplish%20this%20goal.

Barbara Moser-Mercer

Thank you, Emmanuel, for sharing your remarkable insights into the realities on the ground, and how bottom-up thinking needs to be securely embedded in any strategy that seeks systemic change as its final outcome. While the pandemic has clearly demonstrated that there is remarkable capacity at the local level and that without it most everything would have broken down in these contexts, the Global North has started to catch up, often using remote management through technologies that are often inaccessible and unusable on the ground. The window of opportunity for proximate leaders and organisations to be recognised for the incredible work they have done during the pandemic may be closing quickly and shifting the power on a more permanent basis, as well direct funding as envisioned in the Grand Bargain commitments may remain out of reach yet again. We have moved the needle on the 25% of direct funding by a mere 1% since 2016, and have reached only 2%, perhaps a bit more in some regions. Many of the tools designed and developed and deployed by the Global North have failed to support local communities during the pandemic, while their own tools and a grounded understanding of their own support systems have led to very creative and effective solutions. When it comes to resilience the Global South, and especially the refugee and IDP contexts in which I work, had a distinct advantage over the rest of the world that has taken quite some time to adjust to the new circumstances. Your analysis is crucial and I am confident it will be at the forefront of discussions of funders and grantors.

Vishvajeet Pawar

This is an interesting piece of information. Thank you very much for sharing this.

Tessema Bekele Woldegiorgis

Dear Emmanuel: A very impressive, critical, and timely article to be read by all practitioners, funders, and CSO leaders. Both grantmakers and local partners shall understand that it is all about a "partnership" to impact the marginalized and voiceless community. Your article could challenge both grantmakers and practitioners to think differently about humanity. Excellent job and I wish you all the best. Thank you and stay blessed!

Charles Brefo-Nimo

Great piece of work Emmanuel. The article resonates with the work we do at the grassroots level and this is a thought provoking article indeed. Keep it up with such insightful ideas within this space.

David Buenortey

Well written article. You are really doing a great work. This well written and insightful article demonstrates your deep understanding and knowledge Of the work you do.

Neil Ghosh

Emmanuel, Great piece. I saw the critical importance of investments in capacity building firsthand during my childhood in Kolkata (India) and later during my travel to programs in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Investing in human resources is critical to any organization seeking to make a real difference in people’s lives. Developing human resources is at the heart of how we need to build trust and promote lasting social change.

Lois Nembhard

Thanks for this Emmanuel. It is so important and critical to trust grantees and give them the freedom to choose what’s best for them. It is a similar idea to one that I heard expressed on a webinar this week by Farhad Ebrahimi from the Chorus Foundation: Funders should trust the community-based organizations they support 1) to define what work needs to be done and 2) to get the work done. These organizations shouldn’t be simply doing the funder’s bidding. Funders need to do a better job of getting out of the way.

Shenouda Bissada

Thank you Emmanuel for the inspiring article that invites us all to come to the root of what we aim to achieve through financial support. This dilemma has always been there, large institutional donors who look at CSOs as contractors for their own ideas and inject millions to make things happen. This approach that is completely divorced from realities on the ground leads nowhere but to more confusion of CSOs. At the opposite, what you are proposing helps CSOs achieve their real 'Raison d'être' which is key to impact. Thank you again and hope to read more of your work in the future.

Neha Raval

Thank you for this interesting piece! I will second the argument for grantee-centered capacity building programs and would like to see the onus on donors and foundations to shift power dynamics and truly allow grantees to not only choose their capacity-building but to help design it (and be compensated for their expertise). Additionally, it could shift power dynamics even more if grantees are given the freedom to design capacity-building that does not fit into the foundation model and goals, but may be vital for organizational growth, sustainability, and systems strengthening.

Leah Anyanwu

Hey Emmanuel, This is a timely and crucial charge for anyone who works in philanthropy. Similarly, recipients must model the same level of reflectiveness and responsiveness. Projects must remain community centered, and community led/informed.

Mary Tobbin Osei

Waaaaw Emmanuel, this is another insightful and thought provoking write-up. The need for grantee centered capacity strengthening cannot be over emphasised. The grantees are in the best position to determine their owm capability needs The fact is that donors and grantmakers benefit from grantees strengthened capacity as much as the grantees also benefit. The grantees with strengthened capacities perform better and are more able to achieve results for their grant projects. Donors and grantmakers who do not invest in grantees' capacity strengthening are like farmers who refuse to feed the cow but expect to get quality and high quantity milk from it. Emmanuel, this call is so timely. Let's continue to advocate for increased investment in grantee capacity strengthening

prince Ofosu-mensah

Great insights. i have not been folowing recent dvelopments on foreign Aid and development. This article has rekindled my mind, particularly with respect to you drawing attention to donor spoonfeeding tendencies. Have a great day

Emmy Zoomlamai Okello

Wow! Emmanuel, you’re on point. I agree with you, in fact the grassroots based advocacy initiatives could be the solutions to address harsh effects of COVID-19 to community that are furthest left behind in poor countries. The funders can strengthen and communicate to generate local solutions while building trust for partnership with community based implementers. The capacity building of organization’s internal systems would be the pivot to changing practice and to a greater extend influence policies for inclusive service delivery. It is even tougher now for organizations in low income countries to get the grant at this time when funders are not certain with their grant-making policies. However, it’s a good news that some funders are becoming more flexible with their funding guidelines. Thank you for this deep reflection on philanthropy.

Wanjiru Wahome

During this Covid-19 pandemic has been an eye opener to grassroot organizations since there has been minimal funding on normal programming. Post the pandemic most cso's will have to re-strategize and invest more on capacity building with an end goal on sustainability of their operation. This is a well articulated article, keep up!

Mamadou Diallo

A great piece Emmanuel and on point when it comes to capacity building for CSOs. As you rightly pointed out, capacity building should not be a side dish rather the main course a la carte. Donors should learn to trust their partners as the latter know exactly their needs to strengthen their institutional capacities. And yes, you are absolutely right that the support must be thought and sustained. Congratulations!

Hashim Shadan

Thanks, Emmanuel for this well written piece. It's very insightful and informative. It clearly shows your in-depth expertise on the philanthropy and your great experience working on the ground. Your argument makes a great deal of sense. As you stated, funders/grantors should take the post-pandemic opportunity to reflect and not shy awy. There is wisdom in your argument when you say that capacity building must be grantee centered.

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