By Nina Yarbrough, Business Development Manager & Consultant
You know how in “Jurassic Park,” Jeff Goldblum was like, this ain’t gonna end well? He was one of the few characters who tried to articulate that resurrecting apex predators that see humans as tasty walking lunchables may not be the brightest of ideas. But then overconfident white people did it anyway and death and dismemberment ensued.
And then do you remember how Goldblum — beautiful, dark haired zaddy Jeff Goldblum — became an integral part of the cleanup and ultimate containment of the very, very bad science experiment?
I mean, why wouldn’t you listen to this king?
Have you felt like Jeff Goldbloom recently?
We live in a world where Donald Trump got elected as President of the United States! That still blows my mind, by the way, and many of us, like Jeff Goldblum, were like, “This isn’t gonna end well.”
Then, to absolutely no one’s surprise, IT DIDN’T END WELL! The pandemic happened, on top of a ridiculous resurgence in bonkers right-wing white supremacy, and thanks to the Trump administration’s negligent ineptitude, more Americans lost their lives than who were killed in World War II.
If I had to describe 2020 with a picture:
That all said, we did make it through 2020 (for the most part). If you are reading this now, then it is a testament to your survival, perseverance, and your willingness to keep moving forward. With so many intensely dramatic events (hopefully) behind us — though I put nothing past the universe at this point — it makes you wonder…
“What comes next?”
That’s the million-dollar question on everyone’s mind right now. As artists, leaders, fundraisers, creatives; as parents, siblings, people living in the shadow of fresh grief and loss, how in the hell are we going to forge a path forward? Where are we even moving towards?
“And how are we going to get there?”
As a fundraising professional, between you and me, how am I supposed to translate “Like I’m supposed to know? You tell me!” into grant-speak? What syntax do I use so that my organization’s funding request isn’t immediately deleted by whichever program officer is lucky enough to read my hilarious cries for help?
With variations of these questions already being posed by funders, nonprofits are trying to come up with reasonable answers (and have been since the pandemic started). The state of the economy is, at best precarious, and with regards to the general mental state of the country, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the future actually holds. In order to meet the unknown challenges of whatever is on the horizon, investment in sound strategies for meeting mission objectives and doing so with sustainably and racial justice at the center, will be critical for the health and well being of organizations and the people that run them.
How do we do this? By improving organizations’ overall capacity.
As an approach to organizational sustainability capacity building, while not particularly new to many of us, when properly leveraged, can make a huge difference in the wellbeing of companies and the people they serve. However our problem-solving and innovation manifests itself, I theorize that redefining what capacity building means and learning to properly utilize it, will result in stronger, more resilient organizations that are liberated and equitable.
Right now, when we think about capacity building frameworks, they usually refer to investments in programmatic expansion (a little bit more money to do way more work), building out strategic frameworks (hiring consultants to tell you stuff you already know), or investing in new systems (upgrading new software and adding more work with little to no compensation for staff already at the breaking point).
Okay, so this example is a bit exaggerated but oftentimes capacity building seeks to grow and expand, and what I am proposing is that we look at capacity building through the lens of transformation. It takes a process from being very transactional to being more relational. Capacity building as an expression of symbiosis and metamorphosis makes room for the much needed growing pains that accompany any type of organizational shift; no matter how small. While you cannot rush your garden to grow, if given the right nutrients, watered accordingly, and offered enough sunlight, with time you’ll have something dazzling.
How do we learn about change on this level? Well, I’m glad you asked. Let me tell you a little bit about some adorable little creatures that are great teachers in the art of transformation.
Part 1: Let Pokémon teach you what true transformation means
When we talk about capacity building or increasing the capacity of institutions, departments, or individuals, we need to be very clear on what we’re actually discussing. In part, it’s about knowing what our given capacity is and also knowing when to make new additions or infrastructure changes that cause the least amount of suffering. Harm often happens when we begin asking people and systems to do more with less.
My small shop fundraising peeps will recognize this one: Ever been asked to increase the number of grants your company applies for, while also maintaining a growing portfolio of individual donors, while simultaneously stewarding your board of directors to make their end-of-year gifts?
Or how about this one:
You actually end the fiscal year on a high note. Your stewardship and cultivation work paid off and that lovely couple — let’s call them the Smiths — they actually increased their giving. Going from a $2,000 annual fund gift to $5,000! In your follow-up call, Mrs. Smith tells you that they just retired and sold their small chain of coffee shops and have decided they could increase their giving and plan to list your organization in their estate. You have been very good at our job.
OMG, you rock star!
When your Board gets wind of this, they are ecstatic. They also ask for an increase in the number of planned gifts you bring in next year. However, when you eagerly put together a proposal for hiring a planned giving officer, you are somewhat stunned when the request is denied.
Does that ring any bells?
You can make it work for a while, but everyone and everything has their breaking point. Knowing where that breaking point is — understanding what it takes to initiate a transformation and then figuring out what we do after that metamorphosis has occurred — will be important to how we recover from the pandemic.
To start, let’s get on the same page about what is meant when we use the term capacity. The dictionary definition states that it’s a noun that can mean:
1. The maximum amount that something can contain.
Similar words: volume, size, extent, range, scope, etc.
2. The amount that something can produce.
Similar words: ability, power, potential, competency, etc.
3. A specified role or position.
Similar words: position, post, job, office, role, function, etc.
That means that when we discuss capacity, we are talking about the container of a thing rather than the thing itself. Putting another way, capacity is not our mission but the people, systems, capital, and other infrastructure needed to deliver on the mission.
At one level, capacity-building is about maximizing the space of the container, knowing what you can do to really use the current container to its fullest. In our nonprofit world, that may look like hiring a part-time planned giving officer, or deeply supporting programmatic initiatives, reassessing organizational processes, and ensuring there is adequate space and technology to execute given mission objectives.
That said, organizations can make all those investments and still need to make room for a bigger shift. This is where Charmander comes to the rescue!
If capacity, as its definition indicates, is about the container, the finiteness of a given thing — its shape, size, volume, or role — then when we have conversations about increasing organizational capacity (chang the container), we need to also talk about what is required to level up the existing container.
To start to understand this process of transformation, let us turn to one of our greatest teachers: Pokémon.
If you are old enough that you missed the phenomenon that was Pokémon, I can only express a deep sadness for your childhood. Here are the basics:
- Pokémon is short for Pocket Monster.
- The people who take care of and battle alongside Pokemon are called Trainers.
- Most Pokémon are associated with an element (air, earth, fire, water).
- Your ultimate goal as a Trainer is to become a Pokémon Master.
One of the ways you become a Pokémon Master is to win as many battles as possible and have as many strong Pokémon as you can.
How do you get strong Pokémon? You evolve them of course!
The transition a Pokémon takes from one form to another can either happen naturally or it can be aided by an external force called a Thunderstone.
So what the hell does this have to do with nonprofit capacity building?
If capacity is a nonprofit’s finite container and increasing the container is necessary, I would offer that to do this in a holistic way, in a way that centers sustainability and abundance, that honors the metamorphosis that is required, we must acknowledge, accept, and even nurture that change — the same way Pokémon Trainers understand that if their current Pokémon are to get stronger, they must train them to the fullest extent in their current form while also working to initiate their evolution.
Here’s the big question for nonprofits: What’s it going to take for you to level up? Do you need a Thunderstone — an external trigger (think funding, upgrading your CRM, new staff) or will leveling up actually happen as a result of internal shifts (i.e., doing away with old processes, promoting junior staff, reshaping the budget so you can bring on new team members, allowing time to work its magic)?
Ask yourself, what would a Pokémon Master do?
(BTW, I have both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. I just feel the need to let you know, just in case you currently have doubts about the validity of my theory.)
In the world of Pokémon, it is an accepted norm that evolution and literal change in shape, form, and ability is needed in order to meet new demands. Why, then, is it so difficult for us to see this same need in nonprofit organizations? Yes, you can unearth your limits and reach the edges of your current capacity, but if after that, there is still more to be done, then you have to make a change — completely transform and shed the old way of being so that you can make room for the new ways that will be part of your flourishing.
Part 2: How to level up
Remember how Trainers will work with their Pokémon so that they can get stronger? The wisdom in that is that when we become the best at our current level, we are better positioned, when and if it’s needed, to take the next big leap and evolve so that we can be literally stronger.
When this happens and the evolution is smooth, life is great! But other times, it doesn’t work out so well. What then? Let’s take a look and see what a Pokemon Trainer might do.
Scenario 1: Your Pokémon is pretty awesome as-is, so you feel comfortable sticking with the status quo and reluctant to make any changes.
I mean have you seen what Pikachu can do with that tail? As a Trainer you don’t see the need to do much outside of regular battles and are happy to accept any wins, no matter the cost. Your record is spotty, but your worldview is such that, if you just compete in more battles then eventually the math will be in your favor, and you’re bound to win something. Sure, it will be at the expense of poor, exhausted Pikachus, who you are charged with taking care of — but doing anything else feels like so much effort!
You are barely using your container and honestly, you’re okay with bare minimum because it works.
Scenario 2: You understand that your Pokémon need you as much as you need them, so you focus on training them and taking care of them so that they are ready all the time.
And together, you learn what you’re both capable of and you actually do pretty darn good from battle to battle. You have a collection of strong awesome Pokémon that you push to their very limits each and every time.
However, no matter how hard you strive for the ultimate title of Pokémon Master — it’s always out of reach. You’re still a badass who keeps working hard, but you wonder if there’s a different way …
So, of these two, which scenario resonates more with you, young Trainer?
For many nonprofits, scenario 1 probably sounds very familiar.
How often are we told to ‘win more’ without anything changing? Everyone knows there’s a different way, a way that will yield more battle victories, but for whatever reason, the gods of organizational red tape never seem to heed your prayers.
Scenario 2 is leagues above the first option. In that setup, you are the master of knowing your team’s strengths and capitalizing on them. You understand what it is you are working with and how to get the most out of your given resources.
The shape of your container is fully known and you use it well.
But what about the third option?
Scenario 3: You train, you rest, you use those Thunderstones for the Pokémon that make sense, you continue to refine the conditions for the ones that need more time, and you evolve!
Scenario 3 looks very similar to scenario 2. The only [major] difference is that you actually trigger an evolution and move to the next level. This option is what it actually means to increase capacity in a way that causes the least amount of harm to the people and systems inside the company.
While many of us would readily see the first scenario as untenable and possibly amoral, nonprofits stay stuck there for years. While we often can see the missed opportunities in the daily operations from underutilization of current capacity, we also feel limited in our ability to make change.
The second scenario is a much better place to be —
— but doesn’t the third option sound even better?
So why oh why do our organizations settle for second best? Why don’t we make room for change?
Evolution is hard work, and by George is it taxing!
I can offer a few reasons. The biggest one of which is that maximizing what you already have, pushing to the very limits of what you are capable of and able to do is actually a good business practice.
It’s called capacity utilization, and it’s something that for-profit entities and entrepreneurs understand quite thoroughly. Proper capacity utilization requires a deep understanding of your current organizational capacity. After all, even if you could evolve that adorable little Squirtle to a Wartortle, what the hell is the point if you never bothered to improve its water gun attack?
We have to know what our limits are before we can test (or add to) them.
I wager that many nonprofits are either unaware of what their true capacity is or are misusing it. It’s evidenced in the way junior or entry level staff members are underutilized. It shows up in the preservation of convoluted processes. My favorite indicator for underutilization within a nonprofit comes in the form of an age old phrase: “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
But what happens when an organization actually has maximized their potential and understands what their capacity is? The burden to do more is still there. What then?
That’s when we have to actually take on the responsibility of evolution. Not just making it happen but supporting the staff, investing in the required systems, and committing to the time needed to maintain this change.
Metaphors and memes aside, what frightens me more about coming back from a pandemic is not the act of rebuilding. We all are going to have to come to terms with the fact that our world has changed. There is no going back, and as I have said before, I don’t want to go back to the way things were.
No, what scares me is the possibility that, in our effort to move towards the new horizon of life after the pandemic, we will become like the Pokémon Trainer in the first scenario. We will demand more of our people and systems with complete disregard to the very real need for transformation — and not just transforming but also maintaining whatever we evolve into for the longevity of the communities we serve. Infusing nonprofits with cash or throwing more people at a problem make no sense if we are not fully invested in understanding the state of things as they are.
Here are a few questions to consider when thinking about how to understand what it will take to maximize current capacity while, hopefully, moving towards needed additions that will expand, improve, or otherwise increase your future capacity:
- Why are we making an alteration to our current capacity? How will this change serve us?
- Are we fully aware of the current dimensions of our existing capacity?
- What are the areas that comprise our existing capacity? What is missing?
- If we were to make additions, how does the long-term support of that addition show up in the budget?
- How will this alteration or increase in our capacity interact with our values?
- Have we filtered this addition through our internal framework for antiracist practices?
- Have we gotten an intergenerational and/or intersectional perspective during the decision-making process?
- If we don’t make this change, what effects would it have on the people and systems today? What effects will it have in five, ten, fifteen years?
There are plenty of questions you can pose to help you think through how you might change your existing organization (or individual) capacity. Those are just a few to help get you started. Whatever change is made, please do so mindfully and with those most impacted by the shifts held at the center. You may not land on the perfect solution, but you’ll be closer than where you started.
Nina Yarbrough (she/her) has a background in theatre performance, spoken word, and playwriting. She has had a multi-faceted career, which has spanned 14 years both in the arts and the broader nonprofit sector. An Ohio transplant, Nina moved to Seattle in 2014 and obtained her MFA in Arts Leadership from Seattle University two years later. She began her work in fundraising as a member of Seattle Opera’s capital campaign team and currently works for The Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas as the Business Development Manager. A theatre kid at heart, Nina is an avid crafter, owning more books than she’ll ever have time to actually read, and trolls her roommate at least three times a day. This year, she hopes to publish her first collection of poetry, and you can learn more about her artwork by visiting her very cool website, ninayarbrough.com. (Photo cred: Jonathan Vanderweit)