Opinion: Why capacity of nonprofits needs to be redefined and expanded after COVID-19


The nonprofit sector is at a unique inflection point. Organizations are slowly emerging from the chaos of COVID-19, battle-scarred but resilient, and beginning to engage in earnest with the realities of rebuilding their organizations. Many leaders are grappling with what to make of the lessons learned during the past 18 months: Do they return to the “normal” of the before-times, or do they emerge from the pandemic stronger and better?  

Across the sector, one question has become central to the ongoing recovery and stability of most organizations: how to strengthen and equip both nonprofits and their leaders to continue to do their critical (and difficult) work without going under or burning out. Put another way: How, as a sector, can we think creatively and expansively about what it truly looks like to build and help sustain the capacity of nonprofits and their leaders to remain stable and resilient. 

This is such an important question. 

The pandemic has put tremendous pressure on the infrastructure of most nonprofits. According to a report released earlier this year, the pandemic has put more than one-third of U.S. nonprofits in jeopardy of closing within two years. 

The pandemic has changed how we think about nonprofit capacity. The very definition of “capacity” has shifted and expanded, as even the most foundational parts of organizational infrastructure has been tested and strained: staffing models that have always worked have fallen apart, taking internal cultural norms with them; solid budgets and financial management systems were suddenly inadequate; what seemed like solid strategic planning suddenly provided neither strategic guidance nor a plan. 

In order to ensure that nonprofits are able to continue recovery through these months, we must deepen our understanding of what it truly means to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations and their leaders. We must redefine and expand what counts as capacity-building, and make creative investments in those types of support for organizations and their leaders. 

I’ve spent the past 18 months talking and working closely with organizations around the country about capacity building. Two themes have surfaced during this work, and I’ll lift them up here for further contemplation.  

The first theme that has emerged in my conversations and work is around the expansion of the definition of capacity-building support.  It’s not enough to provide funding and support for board development or professional development or the development of scenario plans. While those forms of traditional support remain critical, leaders are expressing the need for support for “softer” forms of capacity, like time and space to work on - not just in - their organizations.  

Leaders describe needing the time and mental space for generative and strategic thinking about the direction of their organizations. This means everything from having time to guide their team through re-entering the workplace, to renegotiating strategic partnerships to reflect new programming, to redesigning fundraising strategies to fit a new reality. The tension between responding vs. planning, or acting vs. pausing, is always present in leadership. Protecting space for leaders to pause and plan during this time of recovery will be important if organizations are to move forward in a way that is stronger. 

A second theme that has emerged is around networks of support. Leaders are building and sustaining networks of peer support with the explicit goal of building their own capacity and supporting their own sustainability. They’re planning regular strategy calls with peers, forming small groups with colleagues to talk regularly and workshop problems in real-time, and reaching out informally to other leaders to ask questions and get both professional and personal support. Although these types of peer networks are not new, there is a new - and increasing - intentionality and emphasis on their capacity building role.

These types of networks - peer support groups, strategic planning cohorts, masterminds - represent an incredibly important form of organizational capacity support. They help leaders build skills in real-time, develop thought partnerships that expand their bank of strategies and bring critical perspectives into their eco-systems, and access emotional support that wards off burnout and makes it easier for them to support their teams.

Both of these themes, which have woven themselves through conversations and work during 2021 in particular, place nonprofit leaders themselves at the center of discussions about capacity-building. That makes sense. Leading through COVID has been tough. In some ways perhaps, the coming months and years may be tougher: A marathon rather than a sprint. The capacity of organizations to survive and thrive in the coming months and years will depend in large part on our collective ability to build and support the expanded capacity and sustainability of their leaders.