Five Questions With Casey: Samantha Mellerson Talks Capacity Building

Posted January 24, 2017, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Samantha Mellerson is Casey’s senior associate for capacity building. She works to strengthen nonprofits so that they can help children and families — regardless of their race, class, ethnicity or hometown — reach their potential.

Before joining the Foundation, Mellerson served as chief operating officer for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services and as the chief program officer for the Family League of Baltimore. For much of her career, Mellerson has worked on initiatives that align with Casey’s juvenile justice reform efforts, including programs that promote alternatives to detention. An active community volunteer, Mellerson serves on many committees and boards that are focused on expanding opportunities to help young people thrive.

In this Five Questions edition, Mellerson discusses capacity building at Casey and tells how this support can help elevate the work of organizations in the community.

Q1. What makes an organization effective in the nonprofit sector?

Casey has established a framework for recognizing five-star nonprofit advocacy organizations. This framework has six core competencies. They are:

  • strategic leadership and decision-making;
  • organizational development, which includes institutional culture, boards, and back office policies;
  • strategic communication;
  • an ability to drive with data;
  • effective advocacy and community engagement; and
  • a clear pursuit of racial and ethnic equity and inclusion.

Q2. What is one misconception that nonprofits have about capacity building?

Nonprofits can feel vulnerable about accepting capacity building support. We remind them that this is an added resource and one that won’t jeopardize their funding. We also remind them that they are in driver’s seat and that this work is being done with them — not to them.

Q3. Do nonprofits enter the conversation knowing their needs? Or does Casey prioritize how to build capacity?

Some organizations come to the table with a clear ask for strategic guidance. Others organizations request help because they are noticing symptoms of a problem.

We try to determine the root causes of an issue. For example: One group requested help with a communications plan to attract and retain members. We learned that their board was pulling the organization in multiple directions, which made it difficult for the group to articulate their work to prospective members. They ended up having to take a step back and focus their priorities first before moving forward with building a communications plan.

Another organization wanted help developing software so that they could track the effectiveness of their network. We discovered that they didn’t have a process in place or clearly defined metrics to measure progress against, so we helped them build a results-based framework within the software they initially requested.

Q4. In terms of the Foundation’s capacity-building support: Is this limited to grantees? Or does it include other organizations?

Usually, we work with grantees. However, we have taken steps to expand beyond this base. We have been building an online platform called the Advocacy Learning Lab, which provides self-assessment tools and guidance in each of the six core competencies that I spoke about earlier. We are currently testing this platform and plan to turn it into an open source tool sometime in 2017. In addition, we have offered some strategic planning help to organizations that are critical to our mission, such as the Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

Q5. What brought you to this work?

Capacity building may not sound sexy, but I wish I had known about these kinds of opportunities when I was in the community and nonprofit sector. In these fields, you’re often wearing about 10 different hats at once, and you don’t have time to be so strategic. Capacity building provides resources to keep organizations healthy, strong and better equipped to boost results for kids, families and communities. And, in my current role, I am quick to remind myself that the vastly under-resourced organizations advocating for children need all the support that they can get.