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Relational Capacity: A New Approach to Capacity Building in Philanthropy

“What you see is what you get.” This phrase is often used to describe a person who is very straightforward, but it can have another meaning—what you are able to see, what you choose to notice, affects what you can accomplish.

As consultants at TCC Group, where we work with funders of all types to provide strategy, capacity building, and evaluation services, we often see this second meaning at work. The way a funder defines a problem, a field, an issue, or a set of stakeholders can have a powerful effect on the impact it can achieve. And while situations vary, there are better and worse ways of seeing.

Today’s environment requires significant adaptive capacity: the ability to learn from the environment and use that information to update one’s strategies. It also requires relational capacity: the ability to understand your ecosystem and to structure yourself to be adaptive as it evolves. Relational capacity begins with the vision to see one’s organization amidst the other organizations, actors, and systems to which it relates. No longer is it enough to design strategies and build capacity as far as the walls of one’s own organization. Today’s complex, multidimensional challenges require more effective collaboration within and across sectors. This is especially true for funders seeking to build the capacity of nonprofit organizations.

This article provides six recommendations to help funders facilitate a shift from best-intentioned, yet incomplete, diagnostics of nonprofits, to multidirectional capacity analysis and knowledge exchange for mutual benefit.

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