Sustaining Nonprofit Performance

Sustaining Nonprofit Performance: The Case for Capacity Building and the Evidence to Support It
by Paul C. Light

The book provides an excellent analysis of capacity building and nonprofit organizations, based on survey research which yields surprising and very valuable results. However, the book’s credibility is harmed by a flawed marketing attempt to tie public confidence in nonprofits to 9/11 and assert that relative lack of public confidence in charities is a recent phenomenon and that the change post-9/11 was significant.

Light begins with a simple, yet elegant, logic chain: organizational capacity tends to lead to organizational effectiveness, which, in turn, bolsters public confidence and increases discretionary giving and volunteering. As Light acknowledges, “Given the lack of objective data for measuring nonprofit capacity and effectiveness, perceptions will have to do for now.” There is little data from the private (for-profit) sector on capacity-building, and most of that is negative or inconclusive as to what worked and why.

He then reports on in-depth survey research he has performed with about 300 nonprofit organizations and their leaders. This research substantiates the basic validity of the logic chain and sets some indicators for organizational development and increasing effectiveness.

Not surprisingly, planning for change activities greatly increases their chance of success. However, relatively few surveyed organizations employed significant pre-change planning. Working with consultants tends to increase success, but relatively few survey respondents were confident in how they selected their consultant(s). The presence of some external, directed funding increased success rates, but change activities paid totally through a grant or directed gift were not nearly as likely to be successful — despite the omnipresent concerns relating to the cost of change and the perception of diverting funds from direct service or activities more closely linked to charitable mission.

Finally, Light outlines a five-tiered nonprofit “development spiral” with life stages that include: 1) organic; 2) enterprising; 3) intentional; 4) robust; and 5) reflective. He identifies the characteristics of each stage and the capacity-building activities most appropriate to each developmental stage.

There is so much good information and insight in this book that it’s hard to digest it all easily. One is tempted to read it with both a highlighter and a legal pad for notes. Some of the narrative recitations of the statistical data are tedious, but that does not mean that the text is too dense. There are a lot of “aha!” moments in the text, too, full of insight and ideas for both nonprofits and we consultants who seek to serve them and move their missions forward.

Invest the time and energy in learning what the author has discovered. There’s a lot of gold there, irrespective of whether 9/11 has had any measurable impact on public confidence in charities.

Table of Contents

1. The Pressure to Perform
2. The Logic of Investment
3. The State of Nonprofit Capacity Building
4. The Case for Capacity Building
5. Improving the Odds of Success
6. The Spiral of Sustainable Excellence
Appendix A — The Capacity-Building Survey
Appendix B — Capacity Building in Low-Income-Serving Children and Family Organizations