Capacity building for South African NPOs – what works?


by Gabrielle Ritchie

Director, The Change Room

5th September 2016


Do we know what capacity development approaches work best in building the skills in NPOs to ensure resilience and sustainability?

There are a growing number of capacity development offerings and initiatives in the non-profit sector, many of which utilise millions in donor funding.  Donors are critical in supporting this work – and the idea is that such training and skills development contributes to ensuring that grantees are sustainable beyond any particular donor grant.

In theory, capacity development for NPO sustainability seeks to ensure that organisations are better able to (amongst other things):

  • jack up their governance
  • manage their finances effectively
  • plan thoroughly
  • develop persuasive and impactful communications
  • monitor their work to ensure an appropriate evidence base for their strategy development and planning
  • brush up on and fine-tune their fundraising skills
  • ensure effective leadership of their organisation

So what approaches are being developed, how is this being tackled, what are we learning from all of this work, and are we finding good practice examples of effective capacity development that genuinely contributes to the longer-term sustainability of South African non-profits?

Firstly, this has been an important area around which donors have convened groups of their grantees.  Based on capacity status and assessment, donors are bringing similar-level grantees together – particularly (but not only) as part of their own exit planning either from South Africa (as was the case with The Atlantic Philanthropies) or from a particular funding focus area.   Secondly, this is a key area of investment for donors who are seeking to contribute to the overall resilience of South Africa’s NPO sector.

The intentions behind the training are excellent, but as with any capacity development endeavour, we really need a thorough assessment of the overall impact of these interventions, along the following kind of lines:

  1. What are the real challenges faced by non-profits working at community level?
  2. Is there a hierarchy of challenges that is different for (for example) urban-based non-profits and rural-based organisations?
  3. What might the key point of influence be in ensuring that resource mobilisation behaviour shifts across and organisation?
  4. What training methodology works best?
  5. Is knowledge-development the most important component of a sustainability capacity building intervention?
  6. What role does mentorship and post-workshop support play in ensuring that new knowledge and skills translate into different resource mobilisation behaviours?
  7. Based on reviewing a number of capacity-development initiatives, which have demonstrated an on-the-ground difference in the resilience of participant non-profits?
  8. What specific approach/ component/ knowledge area has led to this positive impact?
  9. Is this success translatable to other contexts?

These are some of the questions we should be asking specifically of our South African context, so that our capacity development initiatives are focused, designed for impact, and structured in a way that has a best shot at ensuring a shift in how people approach the ongoing task of resourcing their organisations.  A good understanding of these issues would take us a long way to developing effective training – and putting donor money to best use.

Thoughts?  Please share any comments or thoughts you have on this topic.

For other posts on skills required for fundraising, go to


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