Nonprofit Capacity Building Efforts Across Wisconsin

The Wisconsin Nonprofit Resources Group (WisNRG) was formed to connect programs and organizations that support “front lines” nonprofits across Wisconsin. Over the past few years, WisNRG has organized informal quarterly meetings that bring together nonprofit-serving organizations, programs, and centers together from across Wisconsin. Participants discuss common aims, build new collaborations, identify emerging trends in the sector, and share resources and strategies that might be relevant across regions.

WisNRG has also hosted “Town Hall” meet-ups, drawing representatives from nonprofits and nonprofit-serving organizations across Wisconsin. Recent Town Halls have focused on nonprofit capacity building, the work that organizations are doing to support nonprofits in their area, and possibilities for the future. The Wisconsin Nonprofit Summit of July 2023, hosted by the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management at UW-Milwaukee, was another key opportunity for WisNRG participants to connect about capacity-building efforts and needs across Wisconsin. Below, we highlight some of what we heard at these events.

What is capacity building?

WisNRG participants offered several possible definitions of “capacity-building”. UW-Extension referenced Minzner et al. (2014), who proposed that organizational needs for capacity building can be categorized as: organization policy, systems, and structures; leadership; fiscal resources; programs and services; and stakeholder and community engagement. One attendee from Wisconsin Partners described capacity building as, “organizational support that helps nonprofits secure and manage the resources necessary to fulfill their mission.” Similarly, a representative from the Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit research pointed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which defined capacity building as “the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes, and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast-changing world.”

Since this session, critiques of capacity building have come to the forefront from organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. In a recent Nonprofit Quarterly piece, Marcus Little wrote, “Capacity building overvalues the perspectives and acumen of the capacity ‘builder.’” He argued that the assumptions behind the term reinforce power imbalances, and that capacity building itself often fails to meet organizational needs. Carla Taylor, Megan Coolidge and Lauri Valerio echo these critiques in their Nonprofit Quarterly article on redesigning capacity building to support the needs of leaders of color. They propose a new model for capacity building which centers unrestricted, non-time-limited funding and encompasses larger system-level transformation alongside organizational change. These critiques and alternatives could help move nonprofit-serving organizations toward more equitable, effective approaches.

Capacity-building efforts across Wisconsin

The WisNRG Town Halls and Wisconsin Nonprofit Summit shined a spotlight on the broad array of capacity-building efforts taking place in Wisconsin. Some initiatives leverage national resources, while others are locally funded and locally based. We offer a sample of the many diverse efforts spanning organizational support, events and conferences, and certifications:

Evaluation, technical assistance, and organizational support

Events and conferences

Nonprofit professional certification and employment

Looking ahead . . . .

WisNRG will continue to mobilize as a network and platform, working together to strengthen capacity building efforts across Wisconsin. WisNRG commits to continuing regular convenings and relationship-building, sharing out about local and regional efforts, and highlighting opportunities to participate in training and networking events. We also hope to build up the WisNRG web platform as a statewide hub to link to regional information on nonprofit capacity building.This type of intentional networking and information-sharing will help WisNRG members provide complementary (rather than duplicative) supports, leverage existing resources and successful strategies from other efforts, and forge new collaborations.