Technical Assistance and Strong Relationships: Key to Quality Capacity Building

The Robert Bowne Foundation has supported out-of-school time (OST) literacy programs since 1968 and will close its doors on December 31, 2015. It has engaged researchers to learn more and share their practices for supporting effective programs. (http://www.robertbownefoundation.org/frontpage_full.php?frontpageId=144) One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Foundation has been its emphasis on building the management and programmatic capacity of its grantees.

In the 80’s, the Foundation recognized that community-based organizations had the potential to run quality OST programs, but needed additional support to realize that potential. These organizations needed: leadership that supported staff and curriculum development, strong boards, and effective and ongoing evaluation. Today, more than 30 years later, technology is also an important infrastructure need, especially for building donor databases and developing dynamic, brand-building websites.

My dilemma as a program officer was how to effectively fulfill our mission to build the capacity of our grantees. As a former educator, I strongly believe in the importance of learning opportunities being learner-centered; that is, the learner is driving the agenda. Similarly, in my current role, I recognize how important it is for programs to select what capacity building assistance they participate in and for them to be the opt-in drivers of that agenda. So, how could I figure out what organizations needed and guide them to take advantage of the capacity building opportunities?

I realized early on that the information we collected in our mid-term report was not very useful to us at the Foundation or to the grantees themselves. I decided to turn site visits into opportunities for program staff to reflect on their work and set goals for improvement. I changed the name of these meetings/site visits with grantees to “support visits”. Grantees completed a questionnaire before the support visit meeting. The questionnaire allowed them to reflect on what they did over the past year, what they want to do better, and to set goals to work on during the year. During the support visit meetings that followed, we could then review the questionnaire with the executive director and staff of the OST programs to have a more candid conversation about updates and how the foundation could support them. In addition, I surveyed our grantees to determine their technical assistance needs on a regular basis. This gave me concrete data to make decisions about what technical assistance was most needed by our grantees, and if we as a Foundation were equipped to provide that support. We fund nonprofit organizations including Center for Educational Options, Evaluation Access, Community Resource Exchange (CRE), and Taproot to work with our grantees as a third party – rather than us directly – to insure that grantees feel comfortable enough to honestly address their challenges.

So what type of capacity building do we offer? We support programmatic and management technical assistance that is experiential and learner-centered. Technical assistance is a benefit of being a Bowne grantee. Some of the management topics covered are: board development, fundraising, accounting, financial management, and executive coaching. Currently, strategic planning is in much demand. Programmatic technical assistance has included: evaluation, action research seminars, and literacy-based workshops.  The foundation also funds a year-long professional development opportunity with a grant to help organizations develop libraries and literacy activities for their program participants. This grant includes on-site assistance as well as in-person and web based workshops.  Through quarterly topic-based networking meetings such as using evaluation to inform everyday decisions, grantees have the opportunity to learn from each other and share their practice.

A grantee for whom technical assistance and ongoing support has made a difference is Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries (RMM) and their Page Turners After School Program, which began as a start-up volunteer-run program. Through technical assistance, the program has developed a library, a literacy rich program, organizational leadership through CRE’s Leadership Caucus, established the directorship of the afterschool program as a paid position, developed a strategic plan, and strengthened the board through work with Volunteer Consulting Group. Tiffany Triplett, the executive director commented in the report, “Before Bowne, we never had a grantor that said, ‘we believe in this vision you have and the desire you have to meet needs in your community, and we’re going to invest in you.’ I don’t know if we would have been able to do it if they had only given us money. They’ve empowered us to go on beyond them. It’s been invaluable.” We were RMM's first funder in 2001 and we have supported their evolution over time. 

Building capacity, as we’ve learned, is a process. It’s about getting to know a grantee's strengths and needs. It's being a partner, assisting each grantee in working through infrastructure issues rather than just writing a check.

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