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Testing a new model of Capacity Building: What I learned from evaluating St. David’s Foundation’s Capacity Academy

By Ellie Haggerty Coplin, 

Evaluation Officer, St. David’s Foundation 

Great programs need great organizations. After working in the nonprofit sector for over 10 years, capacity building was not a difficult concept for me to understand. I knew from personal experience how often the organizational health of the nonprofits I’d worked for suffered due to lack of resources. To put that in real terms, I knew that in 2014 there was no reason for a large, well run nonprofit in Austin, TX to be using typewriters. And yet, one of our longtime grant partners still had them in play – I’m not kidding, typewriters in 2014.

I also knew how difficult, time consuming, and expensive database transitions can be so I didn’t fault the organization for sticking with what worked.  St. David’s Foundation had been funding programs within the “typewriter” organization for more than 10 years but it wasn’t until 2014 when they were accepted to Capacity Academy, a new three year capacity building initiative of the Foundation, that they had the opportunity and resources to make the transition.

Learn more about St. David’s Foundation’s Capacity Building Work.

The first Capacity Academy cohort meeting at St. David’s Foundation.


So What is Capacity Academy? Let’s Break it Down.

Developed by St. David’s Foundation and in partnership with national experts, Capacity Academy is a new capacity building initiative with the goal of strengthening organizational capacity over the course of the three-year initiative. Keeping the three capacity building principles for grantmakers in mind, we designed the Academy to be Contextual (tailored to meet the needs of the participating organizations), Continuous (a multi-year experience with ongoing learning and reflection), and Collective (strengthening the capacity of leaders at multiple levels within each organization). The core program components include:

  • Capacity Building grants to support organizational projects addressing areas identified by each participating organization such as strategic planning, succession planning, evaluation and knowledge management
  • Individual or team coaching
  • Semi-annual peer learning sessions on range of topics
  • Quarterly Executive Director meetings

Based on results from the Core Capacity Assessment Tool (CCAT), St. David’s Foundation invited eleven organizations with a strong foundation for organizational capacity to apply, and selected seven organizations to participate in the three-year Academy:

AGE of Central Texas, Any Baby Can, Austin Child Guidance Center, Capital IDEA, Communities in Schools of Central Texas, Family Crisis Center and Sustainable Food Center.

The group of grant partner organizations invited to participate in our first-ever Capacity Academy.


The model is based on best practices in this emerging philanthropic field and we had more questions than answers on how to do this work well. That’s where I entered the picture. My role as an Evaluation Officer at the Foundation  is to use data to provide course corrections and measure outcomes.  St. David’s Foundation  partnered with an external social impact consulting firm, TCC Group, to conduct the evaluation and relied on their expertise evaluating similar projects around the country to design the evaluation plan.

Fast forward four years, the pilot initiative has ended, and we have shared evaluation results and launched two subsequent Capacity Academy groups.

Did Capacity Academy Work?

The short answer: Yes, all typewriters have been retired – hooray! All seven organizations completed their projects and increased capacity in challenge areas.

The longer answer: The wide variety of capacity areas of focus limited our ability to roll the findings up into one overarching statement of success. Some groups gained in certain areas while other groups gained elsewhere. Tracking organizational gains and setbacks outside of the project areas raises the important question about causal pathways and what we can attribute to Capacity Academy vs. other efforts within  the organizations.

Our Reflections

One of the goals of the first Capacity Academy was to evaluate the model itself and better understand how St. David’s Foundation can best support  grant partners in their efforts to build great organizations, not just deliver great programs. The mixed methods process evaluation findings reinforced many of the well-known best practices of capacity building such as trust building between Foundation and nonprofit staff, providing continuous, multi-year support, and tailoring projects to be context specific.  In addition, the evaluation helped identify key activities and better understand limitations in the model such as the wide range of projects limiting opportunities for peer learning.

Key Lessons Learned

  • Coaching is the secret sauce: Organizations that made executive coaching available to their leadership team often increased leadership skills among those staff members and greater functioning of the entire leadership team. When the Academy was first conceptualized, St. David’s Foundation envisioned individual coaching. However, when it became apparent that leadership and management capacity could yield improvement at an individual or team level – the Foundation doubled the number of coaching hours available to each organization in Years two and three.
  • Specific and measurable project focus over time leads to better outcomes: Organizations that had a narrow project focus over time were more likely to improve than organizations that had broader focus (e.g., more than two capacity building goals or areas). Across all seven organizations – projects took longer than expected to complete due to a number of factors, including expanding definitions of success as organizations gained a deeper understanding of their capacity areas of focus.
  • Capacity Academy participation builds the habits for effective organizational learning: The Academy’s multi- pronged team approach created dedicated opportunities for staff to reflect on their work, identify areas for improvement, and develop an improvement plan as a team. As a result, all seven organizations strengthened their culture of learning. While reflection might seem like an obvious step, it is often skipped over and is seldom revisited. Creating the space for team learning through learning labs, and let’s be honest, requiring attendance as the funder, supported the development of key habits that lead to more effective learning. For my fellow learning nerds (that’s right I like learning so much that I am studying learning itself), check out my new favorite article on learning by Julia Coffman –  5-A-Day: Learning by Force of Habit.

What’s Next?

We believe organizational effectiveness and capacity building should be an iterative, reflective process. As we look toward the future, we seek ways to adapt and refine our capacity building offerings to meet the needs of the ever-changing environment. Doing this well will require us to continue to evolve our evaluation methods and will demand that we increase our ability to learn from our work and the work of others. And as the Foundation develops its strategy to engage more with rural communities in Central Texas, we couldn’t have a better opportunity to put this plan into action and test out new approaches based on community input and best practices.

Ellie Haggerty Coplin is the Evaluation Officer at St. David’s Foundation.  In her role, she evaluates and measures the overall impact of the Foundation’s funding strategies and philanthropic work. 

Prior to joining the Foundation in 2013, Ellie served as the Program and Evaluation Manager at Cardea Services, managing a federal HIV prevention grant for Office of Minority Health and the evaluation of a federally funded multi-site teen pregnancy prevention program. Ellie began her career as a Bilingual Reproductive Health Specialist at Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas. 

Ellie has a Master of Public Health from Columbia University, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Spanish from Washington University in St. Louis.

Denise Herrera is the Senior Capacity Building Officer at St. David’s Foundation.  In her role, she develops, implements and manages programs and projects related to improving the organizational effectiveness of nonprofit organizations that are key partners in achieving the strategic goals of St. David’s Foundation. Read more…