Think capacity (not just capital)

Right now is the perfect time for nonprofits to think seriously about capacity campaigns.

No surprise, right? After all, this is the year of COVID-19 and we’ve all been facing challenges we couldn’t have possibly imagined at the beginning of the year. And now, as we approach the end of the year – still facing many of these challenges – we’re all aware that there’s no “going back to normal” anytime soon.

Welcome to the new normal: Limiting the number of people in a gathering space like a dining hall or a classroom. Staying six feet apart, whether standing or sleeping. Getting temperature checks or cheek swabs before entering into public spaces.

These health and safety protocols have protected so many from contracting COVID-19. But for nonprofits, they’ve caused a dramatic reshuffling of the deck. Services have been rethought in light of the new guidelines; many have had to reduce the number of people they can serve at a given moment.

At the same time, unemployment and poverty has skyrocketed and more people than ever need nonprofit services to get by – or even survive. So what’s a nonprofit to do?

Think “capacity” before “capital”

For many nonprofits, the answer is to build… and that means launching a capital campaign. Almost always, these campaigns are aimed at building and expanding facility space – which is exactly what many organizations need in the current climate.

As tempting as it is to focus on capital right now to build, it may not tell the story that really needs to be told to your donors. Here at BDI, we want you to consider this: Before you take a step toward a capital campaign, take a moment to assess your nonprofit’s needs from the angle of “capacity” rather than “capital.”

Capacity is usually defined by outcomes. What is your organization’s mission and how do you carry it out? And how much difference are you making by carrying it out?

These outcomes are measurable too:

  • How many more people are sheltered or fed?
  • How many miles of shoreline are free of trash?
  • How many animals have been adopted instead of euthanized?
  • How many water wells dug for communities that previously had no clean water?

Capacity is also considering limits. How many more could you serve if not for your facility and infrastructures? Your management or staff? Your expenses and income?

“Every organization is perfectly constituted to be exactly the way it is.”

By the way, these are BIG questions to consider. But it’s important work. As it’s been said, “Every organization is perfectly constituted to be exactly the way it is.” So to change that perfectly constituted system takes some dedicated time and thought. But it’s so worth it!

Determine: Mission, Limitations, Outcome

Once you’ve taken an inventory of your current capacity (outcomes and limitations), the needs of your organization start to become evident… usually very evident. And the story of your organization’s capacity becomes clear:

Our mission: Sheltering homeless people

Our limitation: Not enough beds to meet the demand

Outcome: Not being able to carry out our mission to the fullest extent

Of course – and this is important to remember – capacity isn’t just limited to space. Needs that arise may include technology additions/upgrades, new/expanded programs or services, additional staff or staff training, or even organizational restructuring.

But for many nonprofits right now, it’s all about needing more space. And that’s no surprise. COVID-19 has dramatically impacted the numbers of people who can be served under one roof, just as the need has never been greater. But even when your need is rooms and space and buildings, talk about it to your donors through the lense of capacity – in other words, how your current limitations are impacting your mission.

Tell the Story of Capacity

Capacity is a more effective way to approach needs because it naturally lends itself to storytelling. With the pandemic still very much affecting daily life, needing more space is something everyone understands and even empathizes with right now. It’s a story that resonates throughout the U.S., and the world.

For example, BDI is working on multi-channel campaigns with several Rescue Mission clients who are expanding or building new facilities. As we work with them to strategize the best approach, we start by looking at capacity. We hone in on the limitations that affect the Rescue Mission’s ministry of feeding and sheltering homeless people to determine the impact on their outcomes.

A story emerges… and it’s focused on capacity. At BDI, we embrace the stories of limitations. We tell those stories to donors: of the men and women sleeping on mats on the floor because there are no beds left… of sending people away with a tent, a sleeping bag or a good jacket because there’s no place at the Mission for them to stay. Stories that would break anyone’s heart.

Telling these stories focused on capacity is a brilliant way to illustrate need. And that’s when the donor is invited to come along – what are all the various ways they could remove that limitation and begin meeting that need? How would their participation make a real difference in our community?

From there, we work with our clients to determine the capital required. But capital is not the story; the story is always capacity. In short: How your donors can remove a current limitation that will allow the organization to fulfill its mission even more effectively and impact more lives.

Expand Capacity Continually

Peter Senge, an MIT scientist who lectures on organizational systems, says that the best organizations are those that “continually expand their capacity to create their own future.” While it may be tempting to think that once a project is finished, there’s less need to think about capacity, it’s actually the opposite! The ongoing work of assessing capacity is critical to an organization’s future health.

As we step boldly into the new normal – and new needs arise – it’s more important than ever that nonprofits assess their capacity and use it to remove their limitations and step forward into a future of fulfilling their mission.

  • Sarah Wallin

    Sarah Wallin, Vice President, Creative Director

    With more than 10 years of nonprofit and Rescue Mission experience, Sarah Wallin brings her expertise and imagination to the creative work at BDI. She draws from her background as a college English instructor and writing work for a variety of nonprofit clients like Boys and Girls Clubs, Goodwill of Los Angeles, Catholic Charities and Summit Ministries, as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing. 

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