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Sustaining Nonprofit Performance

The Case for Capacity Building and the Evidence to Support It

Paul C. Light

Publication Year: 2004

"The nonprofit sector survives because it has a self-exploiting work force: wind it up and it will do more with less until it just runs out. But at some point, the spring must break." America's nonprofit organizations face a difficult present and an uncertain future. Money is tight. Workloads are heavy, employee turnover is high, and charitable donations have not fully rebounded from the recent economic downturn. Media and political scrutiny remains high, and public confidence in nonprofits has yet to recover from its sharp decline in the wake of well-publicized scandals. In a recent survey, only 14 percent of respondents believed that nonprofits did a very good job of spending money wisely; nearly half said that nonprofit leaders were paid too much, compared to 8 percent who said they earned too little. Yet the nonprofit sector has never played a more important role in American life. As a generation of nonprofit executives and board members approaches retirement, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that their organizations are prepared to continue their missions—that they are built to last in a supremely challenging environment. Paul Light, renowned expert on public service and nonprofit management, strongly argues for capacity-building measures as a way to sustain and improve the efforts of the nonprofit sector. With innovative data and insightful analysis, he demonstrates how nonprofits that invest in technology, training, and strategic planning can successfully advance their goals and restore public faith in their mission and capabilities. He explains the ways in which restoration of that faith is critical to the survival of nonprofits—another important reason for improving and then sustaining performance. Organizations that invest adequately in their infrastructure and long-term planning are the ones that will survive and continue to serve.

Published by: Brookings Institution Press

Front Cover

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Title, Copyright

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

Sustaining Nonprofit Performance is the third of a series of volumes published as part of Brookings’s Nonprofit Effectiveness Project, which was launched in 2000 with Making Nonprofits Work. That work examined the deluge of reform moving through the nonprofit sector and was followed by Pathways to Nonprofit...

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Chapter 1. The Pressure to Perform

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pp. 1-12

These are times that try the nonprofit soul. Hardly a day goes by without a news story about a nonprofit or philanthropic foundation gone wrong. Congress seems ready to put strict limits on how much nonprofits can spend on administration and fund-raising. State attorneys general continue to...

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Chapter 2. The Logic of Investment

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pp. 13-43

This book starts from the premise that nonprofits make miracles every day. Name a difficult national or international problem since World War II, and the nonprofit sector has played a role in addressing it, whether through its research, innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, or advocacy. Consider the government’s greatest achievements of the past half century, which were identified in a survey of 450 leading historians...

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Chapter 3. The State of Nonprofit Capacity Building

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pp. 44-85

Just because organizational capacity matters to effectiveness does not mean that efforts to strengthen capacity actually work. Indeed, there is very little hard evidence that capacity building produces a significant rate of return on investment, not because capacity building has a dismal record, but because it has almost no measurable record at all. Although there are...

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Chapter 4. The Case for Capacity Building

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pp. 86-122

However the term is used, capacity building involves an activity such as planning, reorganizing, merging, downsizing, assessing, auditing, installing, training, recruiting, measuring, treating, and so forth. As such, the case for capacity building hinges on finding a positive relationship between the activity and organizational effectiveness, whether measured...

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Chapter 5. Improving the Odds of Success

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pp. 123-135

Despite its potential impact on organizational effectiveness, capacity building is far from automatic or easy. Roughly a quarter of the 318 efforts chronicled in this book were either somewhat successful or less, two-fifths of the survey respondents said their organization’s effort taught them that change is very stressful for their staff, and more than half said they learned that change is more difficult to achieve than...

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Chapter 6. The Spiral of Sustainable Excellence

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pp. 136-176

Imagine nonprofit life as a journey up and down a spiral. All organizations would start with a simple idea for some new program or service and then move up the spiral toward greater and greater impact. Also imagine five landings, or stops, along the climb: the organic phase of life in which they struggle to create a presence in their environment, the enterprising phase...

Appendix A. The Capacity-Building Survey

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pp. 177-190

Appendix B. Capacity Building in Low-Income-Serving Children and Family Organizations

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pp. 191-196


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pp. 197-202


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pp. 203-213

Back Cover

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p. 214-214

E-ISBN-13: 9780815796626
E-ISBN-10: 0815796625
Print-ISBN-13: 9780815752264
Print-ISBN-10: 0815752261

Page Count: 211
Publication Year: 2004