Capacity and Networks

Synthesis thoughts + provoking questions

Many of us within the nonprofit sector talk about capacity every day or at least once a week.  It’s a pressing need that never quite gets fulfilled.  However, we may not have a very well-defined concept of what capacity actually means for our organization, let alone how to “build” it.  Even worse, when we talk about the connection between networks and organizations, there may be some embedded assumptions about directionality.  For example, we might assume that an organization needs to be strong in certain ways (like have a paid executive director) in order to participate in the network.  But it might be the other way around: participating first in the network even with a volunteer director could help that organization build its capacities by connecting to resources, experiences, culture/expectations, etc. within a rich network.  Some of the following articles are thought provoking, some of them help with definition, but for all of them, I suggest holding some of the following questions in your mind as you read.

Questions to keep in mind while reading:

  • What is capacity?  How do we define it within our organization, our network(s)?
  • What is the relationship between organizational capacity and network capacity?
  • How do organizations and networks build capacity differently?  How do these processes interact?
  • How is capacity connected to impact (fulfilling the organizations’ mission)?

Toolkit: A Network Approach to Capacity Building (Council of Nonprofits, 2015)


  • There’s no consensus on definition of capacity building. However, “across all definitions the ultimate goal is to improve overall organizational effectiveness and sustainability.”
  • Collaboration helps according to GEO, “close the gap between pretty good performance and full potential.”
  • Doing capacity building in a networked way can help to prioritize specific capacities within an organization
  • Capacity building should be collective – creates opportunities for efficiencies of scale (See GEO report)
  • Technology is key for sharing learning across a diffuse network
  • “A growing body of literature suggests that when nonprofits employ a network approach to capacity building, they generate impact “at a scale exponentially greater than the sum of their individual parts” (Wei-Skillern, Silver & Heitz, 2014).”

Academic Article: Building Local Infrastructure for Community Adoption of Science-Based Prevention: The Role of Coalition Functioning (Prevention Science, 2015)


  • The research found no connection between coalition function and impact, but rather, found a relationship between coalition functioning + coalition capacities to enable impact.
  • “These results lend support to the importance of promoting the goal directedness, efficiency, participatory orientation, and cohesion of coalitions, but may also suggest that such efforts are only likely to lead to coalition achievements when they are leveraged to build member skills and external linkages to diverse community sectors.”

Briefing Paper: Capacity Building 3.0 (The TCC Group; no date, more recent than 2013)


  • The practice of capacity building has changed – specifically related to impact investing and scaling – however our understanding of the term has not kept up
  • Need to distinguish between capacity and capacity building
  • Capacity describes the skills and ability to make and execute decisions in a manner that achieves effective and efficient results. Capacity building is the process of developing those skills and ability.”
  • “We must acknowledge that, at their core, conversations about capacity are inherently infused with value judgments.”
  • Capacity building 3.0 as actualization, realizing relationships, seeing oneself within context/ecosystem; build org capacity as well as ecosystem capacity
  • “Organizations must ask, “What is our capacity to play an effective ecosystem framed role?””
  • CB3.0 isn’t encouraged through consulting or trainings.  Need “targeted performance optimization”, includes change management support, tracking CB progress
  • “They will recognize how status quo structures, cultures, and practices can impede the success of capacity-building efforts”

Academic article: Exploring relationships among organizational capacity, collaboration, and network change (Psychosocial Intervention, 2015)


  • Relationships between effectiveness and learning capacity, centrality and connectedness in the network
  • The central, core group of high capacity organizations isn’t the only way to affect impact; learning organizations can be on periphery and not well connected to each other
  • There’s a tension between trust/interdependence and resulting lack of adaptability; being deeply embedded in a network can work against the network’s adaptability
  • Out-degree associated with organizational effectiveness, not in-degree; relationship between investment in existing collaborative relationships
  • No correlation between organizational learning and network measures; effectiveness and learning highly correlated – not sure which direction

Academic Research Project: Nonprofit Capacity Instrument (Network for Nonprofit and Social Impact, 2017)


  • “Over a five-year process, researchers tested these questions – in four different languages – on hundreds of nonprofit organizations around the world to develop a survey that would be useful regardless of nonprofit mission, size, age, or location.
  • After analyzing results from around the world, we find that what is commonly referred to as “nonprofit capacity” should actually be thought of as “capacities.” Our statistical analysis suggested that nonprofit organizations might instead think in terms of eight capacities: financial management, adaptive capacity, strategic planning, external communication, board leadership, operational capacity, mission orientation, and staff management.
  • More information: 

Article: Investing in Networks Grows Impact (Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2015)


  • Analysis of Garfield Foundation + RE-AMP after 10 years
  • RE-AMP: 160+ orgs, 8 midwest states