Stronger non-profits emerge from Sustainable Northwest’s organizational leadership program

Posted by Renee Magyar on October 12, 2012

Participants at the latest capacity building workshop in Bend, OR

For the last year and a half, Sustainable Northwest has led an initiative to build strong and 'leaderful' community-based organizations throughout the region. It was a resounding success.

Representatives of 11 organizations from Oregon, Washington, California, and Idaho met last week in Bend, Oregon for the final session of Sustainable Northwest's Capacity-Building Program.  These organizations have a common denominator: all are rural, community-based groups managing their natural resources in ways that benefit both their land and people.  All shared common successes as a result of their 18-month participation in our program and learned new tools for strategic planning, financial management, fundraising and grant-writing, communications and marketing, metrics and evaluation, and much more. Organizations reached milestones ranging from attaining 501(c)3 status to initiating new strategic alliances to garnering record individual donations over the last year.

Capacity-building is a buzzword in the non-profit world, but what does it really mean?  "Capacity" itself refers to many things: staff members, volunteers, administrative systems, financial resources, marketing tools, access to large networks, and more.  However, building capacity is more than adding the sum total of its parts.  It is also a way of responding to the challenges of the world.  Our goal in this program was not only to build stronger parts, but to foster a 'way of being' that embraces change, opportunistically uses adversity, and celebrates successes big and small.  An organization with strong capacity has these features:

  • It is driven by intentional - not crisis-driven - change
  • It is dynamic, continually reflecting and evaluating itself, thus foreseeing new prospects and opportunities as well as adapting to changing needs and circumstances occurs at all levels, not just amongst the executive team.  Strong peer-to-peer learning and cross-training occurs throughout the organization and other fundraising efforts.
  • It has a strong learning culture: coaching and mentorship - in other words, leader-building - occurs at all levels, not just amongst a management team. Strong peer-to-peer learning and cross-training occurs

    throughout the organization.

  • It recognizes and sells its value, generated revenue from diverse sources to supplement grants, individual donations,

Why does this matter?  In a world where change has accelerated at an unprecedented rate in human history, only organizations able to cope with change will endure.  That means changing capacities for changing times.  Our keynote speaker, Mike Jones, who coordinates the Resilience

Alliance Center's Connectors Program in Stockholm, Sweden, put it this way:

"There are no panaceas, just adaptive frameworks.  When an organization thinks it must bounce back from a downturn, it assumes a stable state or wish to return to a stable state.  Instead, organizations must bounce forward. In other words, deliberately transform themselves by taking their system to a new state."   

Sustainable Northwest began its capacity-building work within our Dry Forest Zone Program as a service to our partners.  A tremendous amount of peer learning, exchange, and knowledge transfer has taken place. Building on this work, we expect to offer continuing assistance on a customized basis. 

Dimitra Giannakoulias is the Operations and Communications Associate at Sustainable Northwest.