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Philanthropy journal – Capacity matters – Building from within

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By Todd Cohen

Shaken by terrorism, Americans are getting a sober look at the state of our charitable or civic sector.

The Sept. 11 cataclysm and the drumbeat for war it triggered have unleashed a flood of generosity, reminding us that our democracy is rooted in caring.

But caring is not enough. The breakdown in our national security that failed to spot and prevent the terrorist attacks can be a lesson about the need to heal and repair deep cracks in our civic connectedness.

We face two big problems: We have drifted apart from one another. And the charities we expect to shoulder the tough jobs in our society are poorly equipped to do their work.

Consumed with day-to-day tasks, and faced with funders and donors who don’t recognize their needs, charities don’t get the investment they need for the critical job of building their internal operations.

To succeed, charities need to take stock of themselves, thinking hard about their goals and how to reach them.

They also need tools, training and time to change themselves into focused and flexible business enterprises.

Charities typically devote a lot of time and resources to writing grant applications, soliciting donors and planning fundraising events.

That work of development can drain energy that could be used to deliver services, and also be frustrating and even counterproductive.

Many funding organizations and donors prefer to support programs, not invest in helping charities meet operating costs or strengthen the way they work.

Many charities also tend to tailor their funding requests – and sometimes even their programs – to the pet issues of the funders and donors they’re soliciting.

What’s more, by relying heavily on grants, direct-mail campaigns and traditional fundraising events, many charities are missing the opportunity to be more entrepreneurial about how to sustain themselves financially.

If, instead, they started thinking about their services, programs and knowledge as assets that have value, charities could look for ways to convert that value into revenue and other resources through partnerships, sponsorships and fees.

The bottom line is that many charities don’t seek funding to strengthen their internal operations, and many funders and donors don’t invest in it. And even when that investment is made, it may not be enough or may not be effective.

As a result, charities aren’t addressing critical needs ranging from planning and fundraising to training, technology and partnerships.

Funders and donors need to be smarter about understanding and addressing the needs of the charities they support.

Boosting the “organizational capacity” of charities may not seem as vital a cause as fighting poverty or healing families, but it’s a critical issue for the nonprofit world.

Global terrorists have underscored the need to strengthen our civic sector.

If we are indeed headed for war and the economic hardship and social upheaval it will produce, the health and well-being of our communities will depend on charities that are fit to survive and thrive.

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