July 17, 2024

Obligate Law

Professional Law Makers

Capacity Building for Nonprofits: Needs in the Rural States

4 min read
Capacity Building for Nonprofits: Needs in the Rural States

Nonprofit capacity building in the U.S. has emerged from its initial forays into training and technical assistance by Management Support Organizations in the late 1970s and early 1980s into a rich mix of resources. The current national map includes more diversity with (1) a wide range of both generalized and targeted services, (2) covering multiple fields and organizational issues, (3) with multiple methods for delivery, (4) by a diverse group of provider types.

Thought leaders in the field have written materials since 2000 describing this changing landscape of capacity building. Some of the works most central to the discussion include Strengthening Nonprofit Capacity: Core Concepts in Capacity Building by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the Urban Institute’s Building Capacity in Nonprofit Organizations, the National Council of Nonprofits’ capacity building action-research work with Elizabeth Boris of the Urban Institute’s National Center for Charitable Statistics, Foundation Center interview with Barbara Kibbe, of the Packard Foundation, Carter McNamara’s online Library, and others.

In the West, capacity building has developed in a number of states with a somewhat different approach than one finds in more urban areas of the U.S. This approach springs from nonprofits doing work in more rural and resource-stretched communities. In many states, there is a rich cultural base of diverse cultures, races and traditions from people who have lived in the region for centuries. Our culturally rich and diverse communities place a great deal of emphasis upon this history, relationships, and the importance of respect. Many of the nonprofits in Western communities tend to be underfunded, but committed to building services for communities. They work in regions that have environmental and nonprofit ecosystems that are beautiful, purposeful, and environmentally fragile – like the sector itself.

Lessons Learned

Capacity building needs to be guided by the unique needs of our nonprofits, our region’s nonprofit landscape, and models and effective practices in the field. Of greatest interest to researchers and practitioners alike should be hybrid approaches from different states that address rural needs, and provide partnerships between both association-like and management support types of resources. This allows the sector to address both the policy and funding “big frames” as well as the more targeted issues of focus by organizational type, size, and area of focus.

Mapping the Nonprofit Infrastructure: A Comparison of Capacity Building and Related Resources in Texas and Beyond, studies many elements of the nonprofit sector’s capacity and capacity building, and rates some Western states as very weak with respect to both the nonprofit sector capacity and capacity building resources.

This work for nonprofits is provided at local, regional, state and national levels by a diverse group of organizations. It is offered to a mix of types and sizes of organizations, working in different fields, and needs to be context driven. Current models reflect a greater variety of delivery systems, which provide new options to rural nonprofits.

Because many states and their nonprofits have limited resources and growing stressors on many nonprofits, it is important to develop hybrid approaches that adapt some of the best practices in the field in ways that will work in. Cost-effective strategies need to build upon and leverage the assets that exist, in ways that are culturally relevant, and well suited to our unique nonprofit environment. Mixed-method approaches and leveraged funding initiatives that include local and state governments, are important because our state’s nonprofit and capacity building organizations are highly dependent upon both government and foundation funding.


Capacity building organizations are varied, with new models continuing to emerge. Model capacity building organizations include: management support organizations, state associations, universities and research institutes, funders, consultants, field and issue specific capacity builders, national nonprofit umbrella organizations, national associations, policy institutes, libraries, and more. Capacity building services form a diverse and constantly changing landscape. They include: generalized capacity building resources; field specific support (arts, health, education); and services targeted to areas of organizational work (board development, evaluation, fund raising).

The delivery systems include classics in the field (training, technical assistance, coaching, and consulting) as well as new formats (such as webcasts, electronic training, file-sharing, conference video calls, web-based resources, blogs, and peer-to-peer connecting). The field has also developed more diverse and competitive funding, from issue specific and capacity building grants to program related investments, leveraged funding, community economic development financing, incubators and shared space, field-specific collaborative funding, and scaling up successful models. Today’s capacity building is increasingly driven by a combination of nonprofit needs, context, the capacity builder’s priorities, known models, funding, and the capacity builder’s leadership profile in the community.

Capacity building initiatives throughout the U.S. have become more layered, nuanced, and sophisticated in the past twenty years. Larger states with a good-sized critical mass of nonprofits, foundations, and capacity builders are often able to create the sort of hybrid, mixed-methods approach needed by the mix of nonprofits. However, this is difficult to achieve in the more rural, resource-stretched states like New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, Maine, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Mapping the needs over against current resources, and against other states’ models provides the sort of overlay that can identify both gaps and opportunities for nonprofits in all of these states.

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