I was inspired to write about capacity-building after attending a recent nonprofit conference. The conference focused on what infrastructure is needed for nonprofits to be more sustainable and have a more significant impact. I was surprised by what seemed to be missing from the agenda: building team capacity.

Today, we’ll explore my view of what “capacity-building” means in the nonprofit sector, why team development often takes a backseat, and how investing in your team’s capacity can be a game-changer.

1. What Does “Capacity-Building” Mean in the Nonprofit Sector?

First things first, what exactly is capacity-building? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot in the nonprofit world, yet the definition of “capacity-building” is not always crystal clear. 

At its core, capacity-building is all about strengthening an organization’s ability to fulfill its mission effectively and efficiently. Think of it as giving your nonprofit a power-up to serve its beneficiaries better and achieve its goals.

The United Nations defines it this way:  “Capacity-building is defined as the process of developing and strengthening the skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that organizations and communities need to survive, adapt, and thrive in a fast-changing world.

The National Council of Nonprofits has a similar, but slightly different, definition: “Capacity-building is whatever is needed to bring a nonprofit to the next level of operational, programmatic, financial, or organizational maturity, so it may more effectively and efficiently advance its mission into the future.

So, in general, capacity-building encompasses a wide range of activities and strategies, including…

  • Skill Development: Enhancing the knowledge and skills of your team members to excel in their roles. 
  • Strategic Planning: Crafting a roadmap for the future, aligning your organization’s goals with your mission, and setting clear objectives.
  • Financial Management: Ensuring you can manage your financial resources wisely so you can do more with less. 
  • Governance: Improving the overall structure and decision-making processes within your organization.
  • Collaboration: Building strong partnerships with other nonprofits, government agencies, and the private sector to amplify your nonprofit’s impact.

2. Where Does Team Development Fit In?

Now, let’s zoom in on the often-neglected gem of capacity-buildingTeam Development.

Your team is the heart and soul of your nonprofit. They’re on the front lines, working tirelessly to turn your mission into reality. Yet, team development can fall by the wayside in the race for fundraising dollars and strategic leadership.

Team development involves nurturing your team’s skills, knowledge, and collaboration. It’s more than just sending your staff to workshops or providing occasional training sessions. It’s a holistic approach focusing on continuous growth, empowerment, and a shared purpose.

Consider including these elements of team development in your capacity-building programs…

  • Training and Education: Equip your team with the tools and knowledge they need to excel in their roles, including technical skills and soft skills like communication and leadership. Regular reinforcement, implementation, and integration of the new skills are critical to helping the skills “stick” and seeing real behavior change due to the training and educational opportunities.
  • Leadership Development: Identify and nurture emerging leaders within your organization. Leadership can also come from the mindset of every staff member, regardless of their level of authority or position within the organization. Strong leadership is vital for guiding your nonprofit toward success. 
  • Team Building: Foster a culture of collaboration, connectedness, and trust. Team-building activities and workshops can strengthen relationships, help the team feel more connected, and improve the team’s ability to work together effectively.
  • Employee Well-Being: Ensure your team’s physical and mental well-being is prioritized. Healthy, happy employees who feel connected, engaged, and fulfilled tend to stick around long-term.


3. Why Do Nonprofit Leaders Focus Less on Team-Related Elements Than Fundraising, Leadership, and Other Topics?

It’s a common problem in the nonprofit worldWhy do leaders often put fundraising and other leadership activities ahead of team capacity-building? Let’s unpack this.

  1. The Urgency of Fundraising: Nonprofits often operate under tight budgets. Most rely heavily on donations and grants to keep their missions alive. The need for funds is immediate and unceasing, which can lead to a myopic focus on fundraising. When every dollar counts, it’s easy to see why fundraising becomes the top priority.
  2. Leadership Visibility: Leadership is highly visible, especially in larger organizations. Board members and executive directors are the face of the nonprofit, often interacting with donors and the community. As a result, leadership development and strategic planning take precedence because they’re tied closely to the organization’s image and sustainability.
  3. Limited Resources: Many nonprofits need more resources in terms of finances and personnel. This often means that team development initiatives are pushed to the back burner due to constraints on time and money.
  4. Short-Term vs. Long-Term Gains: Fundraising and leadership activities can yield immediate results, such as securing a grant or launching a new campaign. In contrast, team capacity-building is an investment in the long-term health and effectiveness of the organization, which can be harder to measure and appreciate in the short term.

4. How Might Building Stronger Teams Make a Positive Difference in All Areas of an Organization?

Let’s get to the heart of the matterWhy should nonprofit leaders pay more attention to team capacity-building, and how can it benefit the entire organization?

  1. Strengthening the Foundation: Your team is the very foundation upon which your nonprofit exists. Investing in their growth and development gives your organization a solid base from which to tackle all other capacity-building and mission-delivery efforts.
  2. Enhanced Efficiency: A skilled and motivated team can perform their tasks more efficiently, reducing the strain on resources and allowing your organization to do more.
  3. Innovation and Adaptation: Team capacity-building fosters a culture of innovation and adaptability. When your team feels empowered and supported, they’re more likely to develop creative solutions to challenges.
  4. Improved Stakeholder Relations: Donors, partners, and beneficiaries can tell when an organization has a strong, cohesive team. Strong teams can instill confidence and trust, making it easier to secure funding and partnerships.
  5. Sustainable Growth: While fundraising may provide short-term relief, team capacity-building ensures sustainable growth. A well-developed team can continue to adapt and thrive, even in the face of financial uncertainty.
  6. Mission Alignment: Team development helps every member of your organization stay aligned with your mission and values. This shared sense of purpose can drive your nonprofit forward with unparalleled dedication.
  7. Resilience in Times of Crisis: Nonprofits often face unforeseen challenges, such as economic downturns or global pandemics. A strong team can weather these storms more effectively and emerge stronger on the other side.
  8. Attracting and Retaining Talent: In the nonprofit job market, organizations that invest in their team’s development are more attractive to top talent. Moreover, team capacity-building can boost employee retention, saving recruitment costs for your organization in the long run.
  9. Adapting to Change: The nonprofit landscape is constantly evolving. A well-prepared team is more adaptable to change, whether it’s shifts in donor priorities, changes in regulations, or emerging societal issues.
  10. Improved Collaboration: Building your team’s capacity enhances their ability to collaborate effectively with other organizations (and each other), creating synergies and maximizing impact.


In the world of nonprofits, capacity-building is the key to making a lasting impact. While fundraising and strategic leadership are crucial components, consider the transformative power of team development. Your team is the engine that drives your organization forward. By investing in your team’s growth, you’re positioning your nonprofit to overcome challenges, adapt to change, and ultimately achieve its mission.

So, let’s shift our perspective and shine a light on the often unsung heroes within nonprofit organizations—our dedicated, passionate, and talented team members. We can empower them to excel and lead our organizations to new heights by embracing a commitment to their growth. Together, we can make meaningful strides toward a brighter, more compassionate world where nonprofits flourish and their missions come to life, one step at a time.


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