Give Someone a Fish, Let Them Focus on Carpentry


Vu Le of the blog Nonprofit with Balls talks capacity building:

"Funders have been trying to help [nonprofits] develop, by teaching them to fish. We have a long-held belief that in order to build the capacity of organizations, we must teach them important skills such as financial management, evaluation, board governance, HR, etc. If we just throw money at them—give them a fish, so to speak—they’ll never build their infrastructure...

"What if a person’s skill is not fishing, but building houses? Let’s say someone’s an amazing carpenter. We keep insisting that this carpenter learn to fish, so the carpenter spends half his time doing that. Because of that, fewer houses are getting built, and he’s still pretty much a mediocre fisherman who feels horrible and guilty that he can’t fish as well as others...

"A while ago I wrote Capacity 9.0: Fund people to do stuff, get out of their way. In it, I mention Jan Masaoka (of CalNonprofits)’s argument that funders love funding hammers and nails but not actual carpenters; and then we wonder why not enough houses are getting built. There is a disdain among many funders and donors to pay for staffing, and it greatly affects what can be achieved by our sector.

"But to extend the metaphor further, when we do have carpenters in the sector, we are forcing them to spend most of their time learning to fish, and catching fish, and not allowing them to do carpentry. We have brilliant leaders or organizations in our sector. They are good at getting people to vote, getting kids to study, helping parents understand the school system, delivering hot meals to seniors, helping individuals with mental illness, supporting victims of domestic violence, advocating, saving the environment, etc.

"But we force them to use 50% of their time trying, and struggling, to do capacity building. It often doesn’t work, and the more time and energy these orgs spend trying to build capacity, the less they can actually do the stuff they’re good at and passionate about, and that we need them to do."

Vu's suggestions for a new way forward include:

  • Fund organizations to hire people to do stuff
  • Fund outsourced activities
  • Fund leadership pipeline programs
  • Provide multi-year general operating funds
  • Invest in intermediaries who can provide operations support
  • Invest in intermediaries who can aggregate and distribute funding

Read the whole thing.