Blog from the Big Chair by Rob Meiksins
Usually when I write a blog there's a certain tone - a little sarcastic, a little funky. This blog post is going to be different. We've just made huge changes at NPC – you’ve probably heard about it. So this time I need to get serious and explain what we're up to. Here goes:
For many years, NPC has been a primary player in nonprofit capacity building. The landscape for all nonprofits is changing, however, and we're no exception. More players have joined the field while the capacity-gaps of nonprofits are growing more complex. Our job is to keep pace with those changes, adapting as necessary to offer relevant solutions for the hurdles facing the sector.
That's the backdrop behind recent staffing changes and soon-to-be launched programmatic changes here at NPC - a backdrop that set the stage for taking a dose of our own capacity-building medicine. Internally, we asked hard questions about our work and its impact and uncovered profound, course-correcting answers. We talked with nonprofits, foundations and thought leaders around the state, but more importantly - we listened. We listened in private interviews, town hall meetings and small group sessions to learn what the sector thinks about the future and how NPC is best positioned to help.
While our long-term vision evolves - determined by changes to the sector itself - it's time I gave clarity on what we do know about NPC's new vision, especially in regards to key programmatic changes.
NPC will incorporate an evidence-based model into our educational programming. Nonprofits rely on NPC's affordable educational programs, a cornerstone of what we do and something that we do best. And now we're going to do it even better. Funding agencies and governments increased their focus on nonprofit effectiveness and accountability. In response to that pressure, NPC will incorporate an evidence-based model into our educational programming. The model is built around factors proven to increase nonprofit success, factors we call core competencies.
We strongly believe this shift will create a capacity-building anchor in our region, increase the odds that nonprofits will do their best work, and that both constituency and donors alike will benefit. Look for an upcoming blog post introducing the core competencies and discussing them in detail. In the meantime, take a look at the Maryland Nonprofits' Standards for Excellence, a solid example of how an evidence-based approach to capacity building can be a win-win for everyone.
Beginning in the fall, educational programming at NPC will align with the core competencies. Instructors will still bring their unique background and experience, but courses will now build upon each other and fit into a system designed to build strength in the core areas. If you are an NPC instructor, look for an info session in July to discuss the core competencies in more detail.
Assessment will now figure strongly into how we do capacity-building. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a cookie-cutter approach! We believe in the old adage that “If you’ve seen one nonprofit, you’ve seen one nonprofit.” Because the picture of effectiveness changes depending on leadership, size and stage in the nonprofit life cycle, assessment is crucial to know which core areas might require attention. And in a reverse lens, we'll offer donors a tool for greater clarity around program costs, to verify capacity gaps, and maximize impact on initiatives they invest in.
NPC is also making a commitment to evaluate the outcomes of capacity-building. We understand the need to answer basic questions about whether - and by how much - programs have achieved intended outcomes. This is often called downward accountability, and NPC intends to "walk-the-walk" by providing quantitative answers to how our programs benefit those we serve. It’s a “physician heal thyself” moment.
Capacity building means more than just skill building. It takes resources and collaborative relationships to fill the gaps. We see a critical need for a highly-networked nonprofit sector - nonprofits, funders, governments and businesses - working in unison for the greater good. Because NPC often has a front-line view on the who, what and how, we can mobilize connectivity and collaboration.
One way we do this already is through Leader and Learning Circles, which pull together groups for peer-to-peer mentoring and learning. In our next phase, we plan to partner aggressively with the corporate sector on a skill-sharing campaign to infuse nonprofits with highly-skilled volunteers in common areas of deficit such as governance (board positions), IT, human resources and marketing for example.
Nonprofits also need access to vetted resources. There exists no single place identifying resources, not to mention the uncertainty around credibility of resources. To help nonprofits find qualified consultants, we launched an online Consultants Directory this spring in partnership with the Nonprofit Management Fund. In our next phase, we'll partner again to expand directory offerings to include a wide array of resources.
Same mission, better practices. This is a new era for our sector. As an organization that serves that sector, we must be new as well - building on the strengths of our past, but providing relevant solutions for the hurdles of today. In practical terms, these changes won't impact what NPC does as much as how we do it. In one of my first blogs I described what we do as the Three Cs, and that still holds water. We still build capacity in the form of education and technical assistance. We're still champions of the sector, helping nonprofits voice their needs and tell their story to policymakers and the community. And we're still conveners, bringing people and ideas together to maximize our collective impact. The big change is that we'll continue our work with an intentional, evidence-based (but flexible) system of capacity building, providing greater clarity on if, and by how much, we're really making a difference in the sector.
Ok, that’s it for now. I’ll return to my sarcastic, funky tone – thanks for listening. I hope you get a sense of how excited I am about this new model for us. But enough of being serious. Next time I intend to get back to my usual blogging style as I explore the similarity between nonprofits and pizza parlors.