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


Emmanuel Otoo


In part I of this piece, we explored how the situation presented by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased focus on transforming funding practice, and the role Capacity-building Choice can play in strengthening CSOs. Now we will examine how the significance of effective and fast track deployment of tools promptly to keep grantees anchored to their mission and for field strengthening continues to be more evident.

Grantmakers continue to do this by seeking clarity and listening while being flexible in their grantmaking procedures in a way that demonstrates humility and respect for both their limitations and capacity levels and that of their grantees. Some believe the provision of general operating support grants or guaranteeing long term funding provides freedom for grantees to be creative in responding to their capacity-building needs. But how well has this been tracked to confirm that assertion? Does a general operating support grant really support capacity building, or it is meant for relieving operational cost? It might be helpful to be intentional and explicit about capacity-building initiatives while being mindful of some of the power dynamics between grantees and funders.

Some key players in the philanthropic field are convinced that the pre-COVID-19 dismissive approach to capacity building has contributed to the poor success of systems change initiatives. It has also fuelled the uncontrolled spread of inequalities, contributed to weak movements and ineffective networks, thus reinforcing the wild escalation, and deepening of vulnerability, marginalisation, injustices, and inequities and sometimes unfair and unbalanced grantmaking practices. Most grant recipients believe the COVID-19 pandemic and intensified issues of racial justice present grantmakers and funders an opportunity to alter this perception.

…it is time to spark discussions by reflecting on grantmaking approaches and attitudes towards capacity building…

Relying on grantmakers’ ingenuity, a more positive attitude could be adopted to enhance the effectiveness of capacity building support. Taking steps to reduce complications of capacity building applications while being gentle with ‘imperfect’ approaches would be a welcome idea to grantees. These and other open-minded attitudes can potentially be a game-changer. Recognising the complementary role of intentional, measurable, and grantee-centred capacity-building and core thematic programme-oriented grants could be impactful in achieving systemic change.

It could also result in a long-lasting positive impact propelling the realisation of more capacity building initiatives with bold and clear equity lends. Some grantees see this pandemic as an opening to reduce the rationalisation of capacity-building support not just as an addendum rather an opportunity for grantmakers and funders to be more purposeful about it while embracing it with modesty and thoughtfulness despite how contentious it could be at times. Funders taking time to reflect and avoid being shielded by majestically crafted mission and values statements could be strong allies in elevating equity-oriented, grantee-centered capacity building dialogue.

This is because though grantees embrace donor-accountability, they seem drained and fatigued trying endlessly to justify their capacity building ideas and priorities to attract funding. The good news is that funders still have an opportunity to be more compelling by taking more courageous and progressive steps to be influential and drive an impactful systemic change while supporting the growth and resilience of grantees through grantee-centred capacity-building. It is comforting to know that it is never too late to pause and look internally to overhaul systems, practices, and beliefs around capacity building alongside other sobering grantmaking refinement efforts. Lessons and learning from the COVID-19 pandemic and the invigorated struggles around racial justice issues have presented the philanthropic sector with a chance to be more reflective and not defensive.

Perhaps it is time to spark discussions by reflecting on grantmaking approaches and attitudes towards capacity building and the following questions could be starting points:

  1. How are funders ensuring that their capacity-building efforts are not underpinning power dynamics between them and their grant recipients? 
  2. How are funders facilitating spaces to embrace the grantee-centered capacity-building approach? 
  3. How do funders hold themselves accountable and subject themselves to deep self-critique on their views and practices of their grantees’ capacity building efforts? 
  4. How do funders’ capacity building approaches measure up when viewed through a racial equity lens?

While some results may have been achieved with funder-assisted capacity-building initiatives, it is essential to note that grantee-centred capacity-building is likely to be more impactful and transformative in building a stronger, solid, and resilient organisations, networks, and movements.

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

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 (13)


Great insight . thanks for sharing Your Emmanuel

Benta Abuya

This is a very insightful piece. We must build capacity among actors, CSOs and grantees that are specific to their needs, and respond to their particular areas of work. In so doing, identify capacity gaps among actors, which can be done through use of dialogues, and observations, and work to eliminate these through harnessing the internal strengths that exists among the actors themselves. In some cases, where the internal capacity is not available donors and grantees have worked together to identify external support to build this capacity. One of the main ways of building capacity based on needs is learning by doing through co-creating and joint implementation of the activities including sharing of experiences, sometimes referred to as peer to peer learning, which has been exhibited by learning networks such as Regional Education Learning Initiative (RELI). However, peer learning is most effective when the objectives are clear, and the engagements are structured to maximise these objectives. In RELI for instance, learning for capacity building has been done through learning workshops with over 70 organizations, partners and stakeholders participating to share their experiences, and lessons. To a larger extent it was expected that experience sharing would spur further learning, and thereby encourage the different organizations to drive the learning agenda, hence have incremental steps towards capacity building.

Mary Tobbin Osei

Great paper Emmanuel Thank you for being the voice of the vulnerable grantees who definitely need capacity building support It is time for donors and grantmakers to be intentional about capacity building support

Neha Raval

Great reflection question you pose! It's also important to look at both the political and social ecosystem the grantee is working in and know that capacity-building in tandem with other supports are vital to grantees; not capacity-building on its own.

Patrick Makokoro

Thanks Emmanuel! Timely article. Very important to be reflective and co-create capacity development initiatives with the grantees. A 360 degree perspective required at this moment in order to support initiatives that are sustainable.

Maggie Bangser

Many thanks, Emmanuel, for your thoughtful reflection and recommendations for capacity building.

Jose Bright

Thank you Emmanuel. Great article and long over due.


Capacity building is the empowerment tool for advancement. No doubt a grantee- centred capacity building is more impactful. Thanks Emmanuel for this relevant piece.


Thanks Emmanuel for the fantastic narrative on capacity building. Very insightful and the rapor between the two entities the grantee and the funder must always be Cordelia and flexible this brings about the ripple effect expected. Thanks once again you are a real 'CAPO' in your field Keep on keeping my dear .

Poul Friis

Thank you, Emmanuel for this well formulated article part 1 and 2. Grantee centered, YES - but keep and ongoing dialogue with the grantors. (When you are in a different culture, you shall respect it, you must adhere to it or leave). Be aware of different background and mindset for grantees and grantors in the discussions. As you talk about sustainable CSOs, it is essential to give them a true ownership of the project. Only the local CSO understand the ecosystem, the DNA and network in which they operate. They will also be responsible for any maintenance in the future. For solid and functional capacity building the process must be learning by doing. Discuss the capacity building on a regular basis every 3 to 6 months. Where you agree on 3 -5 issues for special attention/action until the next workshop, where you evaluate the progress. The resources for capacity building must always be specified and flexible for discussion.

Nganashe Lukumay

Wow! such an amazing stuff. Thanks for sharing, truly an eye opening and educative stuff

Rehmah Kasule

Capacity building is critical in supporting organisations implement bold, innovative and sustainable projects at scale. Capacity bounding shouldn’t be seen as a cost but an investment to strengthen leadership, and systems within the organisation.

Afia Quaye

Great intellectual piece. Thanks for the research and educational write up.

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