The Long Road to Building Capacity


“We want to be supportive, I’m just not sure how,” I remember saying before I hung up the phone. I had a sinking feeling as I leaned back in my chair and realized I really didn’t know how to help. I was brand new to the WRF and desperately wanted  to help Ms. Rubye make her vision of increasing educational opportunity for kids in the Delta town of McGehee, Arkansas, a reality.

There were many things I didn’t realize on that call. I didn’t realize that I would talk with Ms. Rubye, make that hundreds of times over the next eight years. So early in my tenure, I didn’t realize there was a lot that a private foundation like WRF could do to help Ms. Rubye. And most importantly, I didn’t realize how much Ms. Rubye would help me and the Foundation refine our strategy for supporting nonprofit capacity in Arkansas.

WRF’s strategy for supporting nonprofit capacity throughout last decade was a bit like the country road that led to Ms. Rubye’s McGehee Desha Alumni Community Center (MDACC) in rural Southeast Arkansas. It was well-worn, mostly straight, and had a few turns along the way.   


Building Organizational Capacity: Moving the Needle

When I talked with Ms. Rubye, WRF was in the early years of its Moving the Needle (MTN) strategic plan. MTN explicitly set a goal to increase nonprofit capacity: “To employ good grantmaking practices that most effectively help nonprofits achieve our MTN goals and their missions.” And so we prioritized how our funding and technical assistance could best support nonprofits.

  • We were consistent and creative in our funding for capacity

  • We convened organizations to share information and connections

Building Sector Capacity: Moving the Needle 2.0

As we turned a corner in 2014 by developing and adopting a new strategic plan, MTN 2.0, WRF began to talk about the Foundation’s capacity-building goal as “Build the Nonprofit Infrastructure.” We saw then that WRF’s role would stretch beyond how we provided funding or technical assistance. We needed to drive the conversation in our state about how to build a stronger nonprofit sector.

  • We built the capacity of the capacity-builders

  • We provided contextualized one-on-one coaching and support to address specific needs

Building the Capacity of Institutions and Individuals: 40 Leaders for Arkansas

WRF’s 40th anniversary gave us an unanticipated opportunity. As we prepared to celebrate, WRF’s Board and staff decided to use the occasion as an opportunity to recognize the impact 40 nonprofit leaders had on the state. We listened to these inspiring leaders and learned what issues were most pressing to Arkansas’s nonprofit sector.

  • We recognized that both individuals and institutions are a key to change

  • We supported leaders–emerging and established

Building a Culture of Innovation: Looking to the Future

As we analyze our “road to capacity-building” and determine our new direction for the next decade, we are analyzing what we have achieved and learned from our MTN strategic plan. This much we know for sure: the intractable challenges that face Arkansas require strong nonprofits and strong leaders, but this will not be enough. We must be willing to innovate and to take uncharted paths.

  • We cannot only build capacity

  • We must support transformation

Today, as I lean back in my chair. I don’t sigh as I did after my first call with Ms. Rubye. I smile. I picture Ms. Rubye and know I did indeed help her. And she did indeed help us. We are further down the road than a decade ago. And we have a full tank of gas–or perhaps rocket fuel–to get to where we need to go.