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Strengthening community through capacity building


We recently held a discussion hosted by Grantmakers in Aging with three leaders in health philanthropy: Archstone Foundation in California, Williamsburg Health Foundation in Virginia, and The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in New Jersey. We gathered together to talk about what works in capacity building and what doesn’t based on our experiences as grantmakers and program officers striving to get resources in the hands of our community partners. Every grantmaker’s toolbox should have equitable, responsive, and resourceful strategies for nonprofit capacity building and strengthening communities. Our panel shared their focus on achieving results and the initiatives they’ve taken to do so.

We thank Catchafire partners and Grantmakers In Aging members Allison Brody, Director of Community Engagement (Williamsburg Health Foundation), Sallie George, Program Officer (The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), and Laura Rath, Vice President of Programs (Archstone Foundation) for their discussion leadership and collaboration. Let’s dive into the discoveries!

What is capacity building?


For organizations, especially those that identify as small grassroots organizations on the front lines of responding to community needs, capacity building refers to strengthening and developing organizational ability to deliver on the mission.

The recipe for strengthening infrastructure is always slightly different for each organization. Traditional items such as sustainability, accountability, fundraising, and communications have a well accepted path of ticking the capacity box but we can’t overlook the whole picture. Infrastructure technology that addresses websites, CRM tools, and remote/hybrid work plays a critical role in organizational effectiveness. Leadership development such as public speaking skills, time management, and coaching all have a role to play in advancing an organization to achieve the results they desire in meeting community needs.

There are benefits to stacking the projects for cumulative impact as well. For example, a logo redesign and branding kit impacts the look of an organization’s downloadable infographics and storytelling design of an impact report, and then can be carried over to a website refresh, and updated social media strategy.

Just like individuals, small organizations cannot be an expert on every facet of organization management. Wearing five hats, much less twenty, doesn't look good on anyone and matching skills based volunteers to help shoulder the load is how Catchafire can help. Overextended nonprofit staff are able to troubleshoot issues and develop solutions with the help of Catchafire’s network of skilled volunteers.

We are seeing incredible capacity surges with grantees. We have some super users, and those tend to be small organizations with few staff and really entrepreneurial executive directors. CEOs, who are small, but think big, and Catchafire allows them to think big!”
-Allison Brody, Williamsburg Health Foundation

What’s working?

Our most impactful tool right now is Catchafire.
- Allison Brody

Here are some words of wisdom from our partner foundations on how they are actively making use of the Catchafire platform.

Archstone Foundation: Strengthen community nonprofits across the board to find the skilled volunteers that can lend a hand at projects and goals important to organizations; even offering Catchafire access to declined or adjacent mission organizations. By developing a wider and deeper field of community responders, the sector(s) and issues important to your foundation, and the needle on your cause is supported for maximum impact.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation: Invest with the broadest eye. How big can you go? Is it neighborhood work or city wide? Is it a region or the entire state? Maybe your foundation impact lens can have a national impact. Reflecting on the impact your foundation aims to achieve means being open to the opportunity to look at the widest number of newly discovered organizations, specialized groups, and often overlooked organizations for inclusion to Catchafire access. Your investment builds organizational sustainability and resiliency, allowing them to advance their missions and serve their communities.

The Williamsburg Health Foundation: Augment existing technical assistance with side-by-side Catchafire access for fast response to multiple needs and the urgency that community organizations close to the work feel. Organizations know what they need, and now is the time to support their will to achieve it.

“Our nonprofits have gotten $9 million dollars in value from our investment in Catchafire access, which is huge. We didn’t have a budget of $9 million to grant on capacity building, but organizations got the value.”
-Sallie George, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation




What’s not working?

Are you still holding onto partnership and giving guidelines from 2019 or earlier? It is universally accepted that being an effective foundation leader and partner in 2022 and beyond means shedding outdated policies. Embracing a vigilant commitment for equitable access to opportunities such as capacity building and strengthening is a critical step for empowering those that are on the frontlines of mission impact. If your foundation is still holding onto the way it’s always been done, now is the time to step up to the opportunity to modernize and ask yourself how is the foundation:

  • Serving the whole community?
  • Sourcing new organizations for opportunities?
  • Holding itself accountable for equitable access?
  • Providing community organizers, grantees, and partners access to capacity building tools?

“Our most recent grant with Catchafire is actually aimed at what we can do to support BIPOC leaders in particular across our state. Our aim is to eventually hopefully bring these folks together and learn from them, and really try to figure out how we can do an even better job to support the community.
-Sallie George, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Additionally, the panel shared specific hurdles to implementing a stand-alone strategy of staff-led capacity building that included:

  • Individual Time - Each staff person has limited time in the work day to devote to 1:1 work, even if your foundation has committed to one or more full time position(s). At the end of each work day, what you have on staff is still just one person available to the enormous sea of grantees and community partners important to the mission. The attention of that one person can only be split in a handful of ways vs. the unlimited number of skills-based volunteers that can take on their own speciality with greater ease.
  • Vulnerability - Most current grantees and certainly newly sourced organizations don’t want to sit down with a current or prospective funder and lay out pain points or knowledge gaps. It is counter-intuitive and can slow down the solution finding process to address genuine and urgent concerns to the organization.
  • Limited Expertise - Foundation staff are generally incredibly talented people, but they are not experts in every facet that their partners may need help with. Not only does it short-change the grantee partner that needs assistance, it can be taxing on the foundation staff as well.

Catchafire experiences


Catchafire helps to strengthen nonprofits by matching professionals who want to donate their time with organizations that need their skills. Catchafire volunteers offer assistance on a wide variety of projects, including fundraising, data management, business systems development, technical writing, publications, human resources, and graphic design. All of the volunteers are skilled professionals who are matched with local area nonprofits.


“We have folks all over the country, the best and brightest, who are helping our nonprofits in New Jersey and over the years, this has amounted to over 50,000 hours! That is pretty extraordinary.”
-Sallie George, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


An organization that has made the most of their access to Catchafire has been More Than Bootstraps, an organization in Westfield, New Jersey that is building a community of first-generation, underrepresented students to empower each other to gain access and succeed in higher education. By tapping into over 60 Catchafire calls and projects with volunteers, the organization has been empowered to explore what they need, when they need it, all while keeping the mission moving forward so that first-generation college students find success, leadership, and mentorship opportunities. The organization has deployed volunteers to work on specialized tech projects, video editing, copyediting, data analysis, graphic design, Excel training, press releases, and elevator pitch training (just to name a few) worth over $170,000 dollars in value.

“It's so individual to each organization. They might have this long laundry list of needs, but where do they start? Program officers can talk them through that, but of course, only [the organization] knows best what the organization needs. Through Catchafire’s nonprofit advisory calls, they talk with an expert for an hour phone call to start to prioritize. That’s led by the organization, they know best where to start on that list and Catchafire helps them take the priorities to the platform for action”.
-Laura Rath, Archstone Foundation

Saahas for Cause is an organization that knows the power of connecting with volunteers to accomplish tasks that serve the south Asian immigrant community of southern California, thanks to support from Archstone Foundation. The organization has been able to grow effective programs that provide services across LA and Orange County that specialize in wellness, mental health therapy, violence prevention, counseling, citizenship assistance, and supportive services for child, domestic, and elder abuse victims. Their ability to mobilize around the many facets of serving all ages of immigrant populations is in part to strong in-house leadership willing to collaborate with strong volunteers on the Catchafire platform. The organization has completed over 43 calls and projects that have provided technology assistance, pitch deck development, finance prep, video production, copy editing, and a long laundry list of needs for a young grassroots organization. The organization has been able to gain help on projects worth over $160,000 and still counting, as several more projects are in the works.

We have to understand that we don't know everything that they're facing in their organization. So we may think social media is the most important, and they may be dealing with a board member who's thrown into the office, and pressured. So we just have to step back and trust them that they're doing what they need most.”
-Allison Brody, Williamsburg Health Foundation

For the Williamsburg Health Foundation in Virginia, it has been important to strengthen the technical assistance they provide as a foundation with the wider skill set available through the Catchafire platform. This has allowed the Foundation to widen the options of resources available to both direct grantees, but also the community-wide organizations that are involved in making change, but not eligible to receive a financial grant. Projects like a press release for the Williamsburg Community of Growers got expert attention from a long-distance skilled volunteer from South Africa with 16 years experience in media relations. The volunteer was able to deliver a timely final product. Also, organizations like Child Development Resources have been able to tap into assistance for 15 different projects worth over $78,000 larger than any single capacity building grant.

Recently, Child Development Resources even engaged a volunteer from Wisconsin to work on a video story and shared, “Bob was amazing! He worked with us for seven months to create an informational video about one of our programs. He seemed to understand immediately what we wanted, was patient as we figured out the format, script, story to tell, etc. Then, he did the editing and compiling of hours of video and pictures we sent. He saved us money on a project that we could not have done without him.”

Get involved with Catchafire


If you’re a grantmaker and would like to learn more about equipping nonprofits in your community with responsive, high-quality capacity building support, let’s connect. Email us here.

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Learn more about our Strong Communities initiative, a 10-city campaign that provides essential operational support to BIPOC nonprofits that are historically disconnected from resources. Join us in supporting 5,000 nonprofits.

Skills-based volunteering and virtual volunteerism is an exciting way to use your skills and knowledge to help others. Sign up today to volunteer and directly support nonprofits and communities. Lend your expertise and boost capacity of nonprofit staff through one hour consultation calls and longer-term projects. Projects range from 1-50 hours across several departments such as design, marketing, operations, finance, IT, and more.

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