NeighborWorks Training Institute Teaches Others How to Work Strategically to Build Capacity

July 01, 2010
By  Jean B MorisseauKuni

The NeighborWorks Training Institute strives to offer its participants cutting-edge approaches to current issues by hiring program development and training staff that work in and understand the community development field. While the tracks of the core curriculum generally remain the same, new classes and symposiums within the tracks are offered to address new and emerging issues. In addition, the trainers use their firsthand, real-world experiences in dealing with the ever-changing problems facing the nonprofit world and seek to provide insight and solutions to complex issues.

In today’s economy, many nonprofit organizations have found that they need to rethink their strategies to build capacity. Funders and government grants are not as plentiful as they once were, and there is more competition for funding through foundations and corporate philanthropy. NeighborWorks’ training professionals often work one-on-one with participants to help them find solutions to problems that were not part of the financial landscape few years ago. Online training opportunities are also available as convenient cost-effective ways to build capacity.

“Nonprofits need to think of themselves as a business and not a charity by passing on opportunities that don’t help to fulfill the goals and mission of the organization.”

John Lehner, president and lead consultant at NRF Corporation, is a facility instructor at NeighborWorks America Training Institute. Lehner’s approach is to encourage nonprofits to take a holistic inventory of their organization and the local environment before they begin capacity-building activities.

“Too many nonprofits chase grant dollars and find themselves three years down the road with programs that don’t fulfill their mission and with no sustainable funding streams,” said Lehner.

Many nonprofits receive a large portion of their funding through state and federal grants. However, government grant money normally comes with very binding strings, and many nonprofits need to seek funding streams that will not hamper their ability to pay their overhead and employee expenses. In addition, state and federal grant funding can change at the whim of policymakers or a new administration. While change can be positive, often nonprofits are left scrambling to find new funding, change program guidelines and worry that they may need to lay off staff.

“Nonprofits need to think of themselves as a business and not a charity by passing on opportunities that don’t help to fulfill the goals and mission of the organization,” said Lehner. “Too many times I have met with nonprofit CEOs who are very passionate about the programs and value that their organization brings to the community, but who does not understand how to run a financially sound business. Successful businesses, whether they are for-profit or a nonprofit, don’t just run themselves; they have expertise to advise and guide them in making sound and strategic decisions that will ensure their profitability and sustainability.”

At a NeighborWorks Training Institute recently held in Phoenix, several classes offered during the session supported this premise, such as Enterprising Alternatives for Funding Revitalization Operations and Generating Unrestricted Income For-Profit Solutions to Non-Profit Finance. The next Institute, to be held in August in Philadelphia, offers Generate Revenue for Your Nonprofit’s Long-Term Sustainability.

“Before they make decisions, nonprofits need to ask themselves: What are my motives for considering this? Is it doable? Is the need already being met locally? If it is, by whom, and are they successful? Secondly, they need to look at their entire program from top to bottom and ask if they have the right mix of expertise currently on staff. Then, and most importantly, they need to find what additional, renewable and alternative ways are available to fund this new initiative,” said Lehner.

Building capacity and finding new funding sources is tricky business, and nonprofit CEOs often find themselves wondering what they can do to provide an insider’s view of their organization. By being strategic and actively seeking funders who want more than just a chance to write a check, they can do just that. Many foundations and business corporations want to become involved in the business end of nonprofits they fund, and do so through volunteer opportunities. Nationwide, nonprofits are reaping the benefits of volunteer expertise in business planning, accounting and staff management, and their corporate partners are able to create positive community relations. Most importantly, the volunteers find a meaningful way to share their expertise.

At the Phoenix training session, a day-long symposium, titled Volunteerism + Community Development, focused on the positive impact of volunteers to community development work and their impact on helping nonprofits build capacity. It’s not surprising that when nonprofits provide their volunteers with meaningful work, the volunteers are more likely to continue their efforts with the organization and, if they are corporate volunteers, will often become advocates for the organization with their employer. This increases the likelihood that the corporation will also support the nonprofit, both through the volunteer efforts as well as through financial support.

Bridges is a regular review of regional community and economic development issues. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the St. Louis Fed or Federal Reserve System.

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