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Effective capacity building: A brief guide for intermediary organizations

This blog post first appeared in the National Afterschool Association's newsletter. Although the focus of the post is on intermediary organizations that support out-of-school-time providers, the content will likely be of relevance to other social service intermediaries whose primary role is to build the capacity of frontline social sector organizations as well.

Visit the Afterschool Expert Hub here and read more about our partnership here


Intermediary organizations play a critical role in the afterschool ecosystem by connecting out-of-school-time (OST) providers to each other and to other stakeholders - including policymakers, funders, parents and communities. Although they may differ in size, structure and approach, they share the common goal of creating and sustaining an impactful ecosystem - and research confirms that they make enormous contributions to the scope, scale, and effectiveness of grassroots providers.

In this post, we share:

  • Three guiding principles for intermediaries interested in effective capacity building.
  • Five ideas for projects that enable intermediaries to strategically contribute to the performance of the OST providers with whom they work.
  • A few key considerations for intermediaries as they work to expand provider capacity.

Three guiding principles for capacity building

  1. Customize it: Organizational capacity needs can differ based on factors such as program model, size and phase of development. Research indicates that providers are more likely to value and learn from a capacity building effort that is based on an informed understanding of their unique circumstance - and is tailored to meet their unique needs.
  2. Keep it continuous and consistent: Organizational transformations rarely happen overnight. Acquiring new skills and knowledge, applying them to individual contexts and sticking it out through the often uncomfortable process of change requires consistent and continuous efforts. Since capacity building needs may vary during this process, intermediaries should make available a variety of approaches that include structured experiences (e.g., workshops), over-the-shoulder assistance (e.g., consultative advice), and web-based resources.
  3. Build capacity for capacity building: An effective capacity building system recognizes that providers should be the starting point for change and therefore, involves them in the building and shaping of their own capacity building effort. For instance, needs assessments and knowledge-sharing efforts allow providers to benchmark themselves with other similar organizations, identify their own gaps and drive their own growth.

Five ideas for capacity building projects

Consistent with the principles outlined above, here are the five ideas for projects that intermediaries can help the providers they work with undertake:

  1. Needs assessment: A systematic and unbiased appraisal of providers' organizational capacity can be the lynchpin of all subsequent capacity building efforts. It can help identify providers' strengths and weaknesses and surface cross-cutting needs that might benefit from a coordinated capacity building effort. When done well, needs assessments can also help set the stage for crucial conversations with program leadership on quality and generate buy-in for subsequent capacity building initiatives.
  2. Training: Group-learning experiences, such as training programs, workshops and seminars, are best suited for situations where multiple providers have the same needs and are at similar stages of development. Trainings can focus on programmatic areas (e.g., STEM, family engagements, literacy, project-based learning, building social emotional skills, etc.) and non-programmatic areas (e.g., strategic planning, governance, fundraising, communications, etc.). View a sample scope for a training program here.
  3. Targeted technical assistance: Tailored technical assistance is ideal when you want to assist a provider with a specific need, and it is typically delivered through a consulting engagement in a one-to-one setting. View sample scopes for technical assistance in areas such as strategic planning, fundraising, communications strategy and board workshop facilitation.
  4. Knowledge sharing: Intermediaries can help providers learn from each other and from best practices by identifying, gathering, and disseminating relevant information, lessons learned, promising practices, replicable models, and innovations. They also serve as a conduit for ideas drawn from sources outside the immediate circle of grassroots organizations, such as academics, policymakers, and advocacy groups.
  5. Evaluation: Finally, effective intermediary organizations know that providing technical assistance are not enough. They must also evaluate the impact of the technical assistance to see if it results in improved performance. View a sample scope for an evaluation project here.

Key Considerations

While considering capacity building interventions for providers, here are some key considerations:

  • Define project scope, timeline and budget upfront: Before undertaking any capacity building effort, it is important to determine the scope, timeline and budget. Usually, these three elements are interlinked, and changing one will impact the others. For instance, if your budget is limited, you will need to reduce the project scope or extend the timeline within which the work needs to be accomplished. When an organization lists projects at the Afterschool Expert Hub, we invest time and effort into understanding, articulating and prioritizing its needs, resulting in clear, well-defined project scope that is aligned to its budget and timeline. This in turn sets expectations, aligns all stakeholders and increases the likelihood of project success.
  • Decide on whether to stay in-house or go with an outside consultant: An intermediary's approach to this question may vary depending on the circumstances. Using in-house staff might save money, but you need to assess if your team has the time, capacity, technical knowledge, facilitation skills and sensitivity to the types of issues that may arise during the process. Based on your assessment, you may determine that working with an outside consultant who brings added capacity, knowledge, experience and objectivity may be helpful. If you do decide to go with an outside consultant, ensure that you are comparing proposals from multiple vetted consultants to determine the best fit. Learn how we do it.
  • Ensure buy-in from program board and staff: Any change process requires internal commitment to learning in order to be successful. Buy-in must come from both staff and board leadership. Ensuring that the provider plays a role in defining the scope of the project and has a voice in deciding whom to engage with are some ways of getting commitment.
  • Clarify who will bear the cost of the intervention: In some cases, the intermediary bears the cost of the intervention. In other cases, the program provider pays for some or all of the cost of the intervention. Either way, it is important to discuss and agree on who will pay, how and when.
  • Determine how you will measure and track the success of the intervention: It can be difficult to measure improvements in organizational capacity and even more difficult to make the connection between capacity improvements and organizational outcomes. It is therefore important to set goals, articulate expectations and define metrics and a process for collecting and evaluating data upfront.