Five Questions With Casey: Samantha Mellerson Talks Capacity Building

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

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.

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