How One Bay Area County is Using the
Nonprofit Capacity Organizational Diagnostic to Prioritize Support for Its Nonprofit Community

What types of capacity-building support do nonprofits need most? How can capacity-building needs be predictively assessed? How might funders best prioritize their capacity-building resources?

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These are the questions that spurred the creation of the Nonprofit Capacity Organizational Diagnostic (N-COD) tool, a comprehensive assessment of seven dimensions of nonprofit organizational capacity, and a subsequent report of findings from an assessment of nonprofits in Solano County, California.

Learning for Action developed an online diagnostic tool for nonprofits to self-assess their progress on the seven core dimensions of nonprofit capacity, with a vision and impact model as the foundation for driving nonprofit effectiveness. LFA piloted the tool with 54 nonprofits in Solano County to assist First 5 Solano and Solano Health and Social Services in learning about the current landscape of nonprofit organizational capacity in the county.

What are the needs in Solano County?

The report and accompanying executive summary show the greatest need for increased capacity and support in the dimensions of Vision and Impact Model, Governance and Leadership, and Evaluation and Learning. While nonprofits operating in Solano County are meeting some important benchmarks, such as having a written mission and vision, collecting some data, and utilizing basic governance procedures, organizations need to deepen their capacity in those areas. Organizations need a theory of change that articulates their vision and impact model; systems to collect, analyze, reflect, and act on outcomes data; and deeper board engagement.

Nonprofits received a level from 0-4 for their score in each dimension. The complete results, below, show a large percentage of organizations at either level 0 or level 1 in every dimension of capacity.

Nonprofit Capacity Results in Core Dimensions

Some of the specific findings that emerged are:

  • Solano County nonprofits deliver services with intention, expertise, and cultural responsiveness.

  • Capacity is low among Solano County nonprofits in many of the seven dimensions.

  • Solano County nonprofits have high levels of capacity, relative to the other dimensions, in the following areas: Program Delivery, Strategic Relationships, and Technology (part of Internal Operations and Management).

  • Solano County nonprofits have low levels of capacity, relative to the other dimensions, in the following areas: Vision and Impact, Board Development, Evaluation and Learning, Resource Generation, and Human Resources (part of Internal Operations and Management).  

  • Nonprofits’ needs for capacity in each dimension are interrelated. For example, in order to deliver programs that lead to desired change (Program Delivery), nonprofits need to effectively and systematically collect, analyze, and reflect on program data (Evaluation and Learning). In order to effectively generate funds (Resource Generation), nonprofits need strong boards of directors that can provide funds and serve as ambassadors for the organization in the community (Board Development).

  • Nonprofits’ levels of capacity according to the diagnostic’s indicators largely align with the areas in which nonprofits self-identified the greatest need for capacity-building support.

  • When describing the key challenges that they face in each dimension, nonprofits most often cited a dearth of staff capacity and time, insufficient staff skill and expertise, and insufficient funding.

How can the needs best be addressed?

The greatest opportunities for potential capacity-building support in Solano County fall into three categories:

1.  Vision and Impact Model: Articulating vision and impact through a theory of change

While most organizations have mission and vision statements, only 15% use strategic planning and monitoring tools, and less than one in five has a theory of change, indicating a deep and foundational need for support in this area. Understanding an organization’s vision and impact model and articulating it in a framework such as a theory of change is the first step to institutionalizing data driven decision making.

2.  Internal Evaluation and Learning: Developing evaluation frameworks and cultivating reflective practices

Organizations in Solano need support with their capacity to measure, track, and reflect on data. Basic procedures for collecting information on the number of people served are generally in place among respondents. However, most nonprofits do not have a system for collecting, analyzing, and making changes based on outcome data. Just as articulating an organization’s vision and impact model is foundational to many other dimensions of capacity, the ability to use data for continuous and long-term learning and improvement influences an organization’s success in many ways. It is only by knowing which programs are strong, which benchmarks are not met, or which programs are or are not reaching the target population that an organization can reflect on those findings and course correct as necessary. Having this information is powerful—it enables the board to know whether the organization is on track, staff to know how well programs are succeeding, and funders to know what they are investing in. Without a strong evaluation and learning capacity, an organization will not be able to truly communicate the results of their work.

3.  Board Governance and Leadership: Strengthening boards and identifying new board members

A strong board where individual board members bring their time, talents, and financial resources to bear is a hallmark of a strong nonprofit. While most organizations have basic procedures in place and hold regular board meetings, the Nonprofit Capacity Diagnostic results indicate that most organizations do not have strategic boards that set a strong vision for the organization and hold themselves and the staff accountable for achieving that vision. A high-performing board is also closely tied to fundraising—board members should serve as ambassadors for the organization in the community, developing connections and generating resources. A particular area of need noted by respondents is cultivating new board members—many report that their boards are comprised of individuals with limited time, networks, expertise, and/or financial resources. They recognize this need, but are unsure how to have it met. Support for organizations in this area could range in the degree of intensity and resources required.

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LFA chose to highlight these three dimensions for potential capacity-building interventions based on the need for increased capacity as demonstrated by the results of the Nonprofit Capacity Organizational Diagnostic, our deep experience with nonprofits and understanding of which dimensions are the highest leverage within an organization, and what lends itself well to capacity-building interventions. LFA has chosen to focus on what we believe are foundational elements of organizational capacity. Increased capacity in these three areas will then enhance performance and capacity in other dimensions. Some areas of reported need by nonprofits are not included for various reasons. For instance, while Resource Generation was noted as a high need among many organizations, having a clear vision and strategy in place, along with data to demonstrate success, are pre-conditions for nonprofits to successfully generate additional resources.

What are the next steps in Solano County?

The research has been presented in a series of convenings and meetings to a group of Solano County funders, over 75 nonprofits, the County Board of Supervisors, and the First 5 Solano Children and Families Commission. Solano County is currently reviewing the recommendations from the research along with feedback from the nonprofit community, and plans to make targeted capacity-building support available soon.