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Groups push ‘capacity’

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By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Helping nonprofits do a better job has become a critical priority and challenge.

Ask Tom Tierney, who stepped down as CEO of Boston-based management consultant Bain & Co. two years ago to help launch a nonprofit consulting firm.

“If we want outstanding mission-related results, the only way to do that is to build outstanding organizations,” says Tierney, chairman of The Bridgespan Group in Boston, which works to strengthen nonprofits’ internal operations, or “capacity,” by helping them develop and carry out strategies.

Capacity-building is important, particularly with an economic downturn and growing competition for dollars, because funders expect charities to do more with less, and account for the support they receive, Tierney and other experts say.

And it’s tough, they say, because nonprofits and grantmakers typically won’t invest in internal operations.

To boost capacity-building, six Charlotte groups are sponsoring a conference May 9 to help funders, nonprofit executives and board members focus on the issue, gauge the support nonprofits want and need, and spur new funder initiatives.

“The idea is to raise the consciousness level of the absolute need for this, so people will value it more, and to get people to think about funding it,” says Harriet Sanford, president of the Arts & Science Council.

That’s a big job.

“Capacity-building is very hard to do because funders rarely fund it, managers rarely treat it as a top priority and often can’t follow through on it, and boards inconsistently support it,” says Tierney, who will speak at the conference.

If boards and funders don’t invest in capacity, says Cyndee Patterson, president of the Lee Institute, a leadership development group, “we can’t expect these organizations to take on the higher demand level with fewer resources.”

And if nonprofits don’t gird themselves internally, says Carroll Gray, president of the Charlotte Chamber, they won’t survive.

Corporate donors will “be attracted to those that are doing the best job,” he says.

Gloria Pace King, president of the United Way of Central Carolinas, hopes the conference will spawn capacity-building initiatives, such as the delivery of back-office services that groups of nonprofits could share.

Tierney says capacity-building requires funders, managers and boards to be in sync and willing to invest in the right people, jobs, governance, structure and strategy for a nonprofit.

The focus, he says, must shift from measuring and trying to curb short-term costs to assessing social impact, holding nonprofits be more accountable for the results they achieve and investing for the long-term.

“There’s no free lunch,” he says. “If someone wants to achieve results in an organization, sooner or later you have to pay for those results.”

Funders, boards and executive directors “need to be patient but demanding in terms of outcomes and accountability,” he says.

Ultimately, he says, at least a few grantmakers must step up and invest to show capacity-building’s impact.

“Funders are going to have to take the lead,” he says, “because they have the resources to drive change.”

In addition to Gray, King, Patterson, Sanford and Tierney, other panelists and speakers at the conference include Michael Marsicano, president and CEO, Foundation for the Carolinas; Elizabeth Locke, president, The Duke Endowment; and Evern Cooper, president, UPS Foundation, Atlanta.

For information, call Ellen Caldwell, United Way of Central Carolinas, 704-371-6286.

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