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Toward Positive Youth DevelopmentTransforming Schools and Community Programs$

Marybeth Shinn and Hirokazu Yoshikawa

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195327892

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195327892.001.0001

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Building the Capacity of Small Community-Based Organizations to Better Serve Youth

Building the Capacity of Small Community-Based Organizations to Better Serve Youth

(p.173) Chapter 10 Building the Capacity of Small Community-Based Organizations to Better Serve Youth
Toward Positive Youth Development

Robin Lin Miller

Shannon K. E. Kobes

Jason C. Forney

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Community-based organizations (CBOs) are a principal means by which members of American society seek to improve human wellbeing and advocate on behalf of those whose needs are not well met by other types of institutions. This chapter develops a framework for understanding CBO capacity and for guiding efforts to develop it. It focuses specifically on small CBOs, those with limited personnel and non-personnel resources. It describes a range of approaches, including education, technical assistance, coaching, and reorganization, as well as suggesting ways in which the success of these approaches may be evaluated.

Keywords:   community-based organizations, organizational capacity building, organizational development assistance, technical assistance evaluation, HIV

Community-based organizations (CBOs) enable members of our society to improve human well-being and advocate on behalf of those whose needs are not well met by other types of institutions (Frederickson & London, 2000; Lipsky & Smith, 1989-1990). In light of the central role that CBOs can play in promoting the quality of citizens’ lives, fostering their optimal functioning serves an essential purpose toward the larger aim of social betterment.

A principal focus of current efforts to improve CBOs concerns the development of their organizational capacity. Organizational capacity efforts are those in which an internal or an outside entity uses organizational development or other strategies to enhance specific organizational competencies. What constitutes organizational capacity is often implied by the choice of focus of capacity-building intervention efforts (e.g., developing competence to conduct program evaluation) and by the specific social problem area of interest (e.g., developing competence to deliver particular types of evidence-based programs).

In this chapter, we develop a framework for understanding CBO capacity and for guiding efforts to develop it in youth-serving CBOs. We focus specifically on small CBOs, drawing on our own experiences over the past 20 years of working with CBOs in the fields of violence against women, HIV/AIDS, and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender concerns. Although the strategies we describe are broadly applicable and should work equally well across a range of CBOs, the application of these strategies to youth-serving CBOs is less well (p.174) documented than in CBOs representing other constituents. When possible, we illustrate these strategies with examples drawn from youth-serving CBOs. When we lack examples from youth-serving CBOs, we use examples from CBOs that include youth among constituents. We begin by identifying what sets apart CBOs, including those that represent youth, from other types of organizations.

Defining Features of Cbos

The label “CBO” is often loosely applied to any nonprofit organization operating in a local community setting. Yet, CBOs are unique among nonprofit organizational forms and are infrequently the focus of organizational theory and research. CBOs are citizen-driven organizations that pursue social change in the names of communities that are neglected by the mainstream (Altman, 1994; Marwell, 2004), such as youth of color residing in a specific neighborhood or city. CBOs are distinguished from other types of nonprofit human service organizations by the fact that they act on the behalf of their local community, increase attention to and address the needs of their community, and develop and empower their community (Altman, 1994; Marwell, 2004). The CBO mission is carried out by providing direct services, engaging in community-building endeavors, and influencing local political and policy outcomes (Marwell, 2004). In youth-serving CBOs, youth often play a meaningful role in setting the agenda, articulating youth’s needs, and shaping organizational activities. For example, The Center for Teen Empowerment in Massachusetts (http://www.teenempowerment.com) engages in youth organizing to help youth initiate local efforts at social change. Teen Empowerment’s youth organizers select their own goals for social change and the means by which it will be attained. The youth organizers have initiated actions such as community-police dialogues and a local peace conference.

The locally focused community and advocacy orientation of a CBO highlights the centrality of social and political values to the organization’s values. CBOs possess distinct and discernible ethical and value stances toward their constituents, the particular social changes they desire to achieve on their behalf, and how they think change can best be brought about. Moreover, those youth and adults who participate in a CBO’s operation are likely to possess values that align closely with those of the organization, so the collective value framework guiding the organization becomes of central importance to its ability to sustain itself. Values provide the backdrop against which all organizational competencies must be considered and in which any effort at change will take place.

(p.175) Challenges to Capacity Building for Cbos

The dangers and challenges of providing capacity development services to CBOs are multiple and highlight the boundary conditions for efforts at change. Change efforts must be appropriate to and fit the political and social environment in which the organization functions and must be appropriate to the organization’s size and resources and its stage of development. We briefly address each of these conditions for establishing the fit between capacity-building efforts and organizational circumstances.

Sensitivity to the Political and Social Fit of Capacity Building

In CBOs, unlike other organizational environments, capacity-building efforts run the risk of undoing what makes a CBO community based and an advocate for its constituents, in this case, youth. Capacity development is a professionalizing exercise to some degree and may paradoxically contribute to a CBO becoming a traditional service provider. For instance, capacity-building efforts can co-opt the CBO’s community-building and community-management missions by being overly focused on “professional” ways of providing services and on adult-directed activities and decision making. Capacity building could mechanize work in ways that are incongruous with core organizational philosophical principles such as responsiveness, innovation, and flexibility or emphasize priorities that are weakly related to the organization’s overarching political purpose to advance the rights and well-being of its youth community.

CBOs may place high value on the facets of their organizations that identify them as community based and as not a mainstream youth service. CBOs want their community to have resources and services directed to their youth, but part of the raison d’etre of a CBO is to make sure that youth have a say in what and how needs are to be met. Like all CBOs, youth-serving CBOs want to be able to determine what capacities they would like to build, rather than have outsiders do so. Successful capacity building should maintain community-based decision making and not undermine youth’s voice and participation in capacity building. It should also be consonant with the community-building aspect of a CBO and fit with its larger efforts toward social change to benefit youth.

Size and Resources

As we have previously stated, CBOs are typically rooted in local, citizen-driven movements, are staffed by indigenous adult and youth community workers, (p.176) and are small organizational settings. For instance, it is not unusual among CBOs to have no more than one or two paid employees. CBOs are often financially vulnerable, with small shifts in funding priorities having large impacts on these organizations’ financial health. CBOs may not have resources that other organizations have, such as desks and computers for every employee, organization-wide access to the Internet, and adequate space or supplies. Committed people, paid and unpaid, youth and adult, are typically the most highly prized and plentiful resource.

These features of CBOs have important implications for the scale along which we consider capacity and set the limits to applying knowledge developed from other types of organizations. CBOs may not be able to afford (or welcome) outside capacity-building assistance, so capacity-building approaches rooted in expert-delivered organizational development consultation may be difficult to apply. Indeed, some research suggests that CBOs are most likely to pursue capacity building without outside help and that some of these organizations may reject the idea of capacity building altogether (Light, 2004). Many typical efforts to build and measure capacity need to be reconsidered in light of the small scale and often low and unstable resource base of the CBO.

Stage of Development

CBOs evolve dynamically over time, responding to change in social conditions surrounding the problems of concern to their youth community and the local economics of community-based life. Consequently, which capacities are most important and how each applies to the CBO will depend upon its stage of development and the state of the problem with which it is concerned.

Organizations move through life cycles of growth and decline, with particular competencies of greater importance at some stages than at others (Griener, 1972; Riger, 1984), while also contending with changing environmental conditions (Oliver, 1991). For instance, leadership capacities may be of the utmost importance at an organization’s initiation, as it is vision and leadership that will attract and maintain organizational adherents. These skills may also be especially important when the organization’s approach is locally contentious or at points of major transition. At other moments in time, skills at routinizing projects may be more important to develop than particular leadership skills, either because of internal organizational needs for stability or because of external demands. The life cycle and environment transactional principles highlight that capacity is dynamic; any particular capacity may be of greater or less importance at any particular stage of an organization’s life or in particular circumstances. Those who seek to intervene in CBOs are wise to consider how an organization’s present mixture of competencies facilitates its success relative to its current stage of growth or decline and present context.

(p.177) Organizational Capacity and Development

Our framework for understanding the targets of organizational capacity development derives from Hannan and Carroll (1995). According to these authors, organizations have three distinguishing facets.

  1. 1. Organizations are durable social structures, designed to persist over time and routinely and continuously carry out specific actions.

  2. 2. They are reliable in so far as they are intended to be good at doing the same thing in the same way over and over.

  3. 3. They are internally and externally accountable for performing in accordance with agreed-on standards and procedures.

Although the features of durability, reliability, and accountability may be embodied differently in a CBO than in a corporate setting, any organization must have these capacities to serve its function well (see Table 10.1).

In our extension of this framework to the youth-serving CBO, we see these features as situated within the framework of the values that contribute to the specific structures, activities, and culture the organization has evolved to meet its goals. Change in core values may prompt changes within capacity domains. By the same token, change in a domain may be resisted if it goes against the core value framework.

Approaches to Change

In this section, we identify six approaches to organizational change that have been applied to CBOs, including those that represent youth. For each approach, we describe the action to induce change, propose why the strategy can be reasoned to influence organizational functioning, and discuss what kinds of organizational changes one might expect to occur as a result of engaging each strategy.

Education and Skills-Development Training and Technical Assistance

Education, training, and technical assistance approaches to organizational change are fairly common. The actions and activities that typify this approach to change may be especially common for CBOs because these approaches can be carried out in ways that are low cost, take little staff time relative to other alternatives, and can be offered in a variety of formats that minimally interfere with the day-to-day business of getting work done.

In this strategy, select members of an organization participate in time-limited instruction to enhance their individual knowledge of a well-defined (p.178)

Table 10.1. Organizational Capacities of CBOs

Domain and Purpose



Challenges for Small CBOs

Durability—Enables survival over time

Environmental scanning

Ability to scan the environment and stay abreast of new developments. Routine acquisition of information about how the field is changing and challenges and opportunities ahead (Correia & Wilson, 2001; Kearns, 2000; Miller, Bedney, & Guenther-Grey, 2003).

CBOs may lack the person power to routinely scan the environment and the burden of collecting information may be too great for an already busy CBO staff. CBOs may have limited contact with and access to influential information sources, such as people who are in the know or networking events.


Ability to adjust to changing times, experiment, and create. (Johnson, Carol, Center, & Daley, 2004; Zeldin, Camino, & Mook, 2005).

CBOs may lack the time and resources necessary to design and implement new innovations or face pressure to do things as other types of institutions do.

Resources acquisition

Ability to acquire human and nonhuman resources efficiently and effectively (Miller et al., 2003).

CBOs may not have the kinds of resources needed to develop more resources, such as professional development staff.


Ability to attract and maintain qualified and competent board/executive leadership (Foster-Fishman, Berkowitz, Lounsbury, Jacobson, & Allen, 2001; Kearns, 2000; Miller et al., 2003).

CBOs are dependent upon the intrinsic rewards associated with working in the setting to attract and maintain dedicated and skilled leaders. Financial incentives and employee and Board perquisites may be very limited.


Ability to communicate effectively to internal and external agents (Arsenault, 1998; Foster-Fishman et al., 2001; Harper, Bangi, et al., 2004).

Local competition for resources and mistrust may hinder a CBO’s willingness and ability to communicate with others. Internal communication problems may arise from low use of technology and overburdening of staff.


Ability to network and work cooperatively with others to avoid unnecessary duplication and maximize resources (Arsenault, 1998; Foster-Fishman et al., 2001; Harper & Caver, 1999; Harper, Lardon, et al., 2004; Kearns, 2000).

CBOs may not have the time, energy, history, or trust of other providers to engage in cooperative ventures. Value clashes and competition over resources among CBOs may also limit cooperation.


Ability to craft unique and compelling vision that mobilizes and bonds community to the agency and its mission (Kearns, 2000).

CBOs may not take the time to carefully craft a clear statement of vision. Over time, CBOs may allow their vision to drift in response to availability of new resources or turnover.

Reliability—Enables consistently high performance

Program development

Ability to define problems, their causes, and turn prospective solutions into logical, feasible, and clear plans of action (Miller et al., 2003; Shediac-Rizkallah & Bone, 1998).

CBOs may lack the time and resources to study problems systematically and engage in planful action.

Program management

Ability to make sure that plans of action are carried out as intended, adjusted as required, and that problems are addressed in a timely and competent fashion (Miller et al., 2003).

CBOs may lack adequate personnel to carry out plans as intended and respond to implementation problems rapidly.

Resource management

Ability to manage and conserve resources over time and across the implementation of multiple activities (Foster-Fishman et al., 2001; Miller et al., 2003).

CBOs’ modest and fluctuating resources may make managing and conserving resources difficult.

Human resource management

Ability to appropriately delegate tasks, supervise paid and nonpaid personnel, provide appropriate supports and feedback, and honor personnel contributions (Foster-Fishman et al., 2001; Miller et al., 2003).

CBOs may lack personnel dedicated to perform HR duties and to provide close supervision of frontline paid and unpaid workers.

Information systems management

Ability to properly collect and use client and service use data to inform program management (Carrilio, 2005; Mitchell, Florin, & Stevenson, 2002).

CBOs may lack computers and technologically advanced personnel to develop and maintain updated and running information systems.

Accountability—Enables demonstration that goals are met

Program evaluation

Ability to collect and use information to improve programs and evaluate program merits relative to agreed-upon goals (Foster-Fishman et al., 2001; Miller et al., 2003; Patton, 2004).

CBOs may lack the knowledge, ability, and resources to conduct evaluation.

Executive management

Ability of the board and executive leadership to meet its obligations as stewards of the organization’s programs (Miller et al., 2003; Saidel, 2002).

CBO leadership may not have adequate knowledge of financial, policy, and legal operational issues.

(p.179) (p.180) topic or engage in hands-on skill development training in an area. The flexibility of the approach is among its appeals. Training, technical assistance, and education may be provided in-house or at a location off site, to individuals or to groups, online or face-to-face, via a packaged program or a program developed specifically for or tailored to the specific needs and existing knowledge and skill levels of an organization, in single or multiple sessions, or as a one-shot or an ongoing effort. Typically, education, training, and technical assistance efforts are used to improve employees’ knowledge and skill in well-defined topical areas, such as program development and evaluation, financial development and fundraising, and human resource management.

An exemplary training approach to organizational change may be found in Project REP (Youth-led Research, Evaluation, and Planning), an organizational change effort initiated by Youth in Focus, a California CBO devoted to youth empowerment (www.youthinfocus.net). Project REP trains youth served by the organization to design and conduct evaluations as a means to promote youth development and empowerment, while simultaneously encouraging its own organizational development and capacity (London, Zimmerman, & Erbstein, 2003). After training, youth conduct actual program evaluations within and outside the agency on their own or alongside adult teams. The youth evaluators have conducted multiple projects that have led to change in local policy, service configurations, and increased opportunities for youth to have a voice and become involved in local initiatives. The project has led to documented growth in organizational capacity in vital areas such as vision, internal and external collaboration, and networking. The project has also created what its creators call a “youth leadership ladder” by which youth are prepared to assume staff and leadership roles in CBOs.

Training, education, and technical assistance approaches to organizational change assume that when individual staff posses desired competencies, then each will perform his or her job capably. As a result of staff improving their abilities, organizations can function more efficiently and effectively. It is in this sense that education, technical assistance, and training are “trickle-up” strategies of organizational change. It is for the same reason that these strategies are believed to work that they are also limited as a way to change an organization. Education, technical assistance, and training, when these activities succeed, change individuals directly and may only indirectly change the organizations for which they work, if at all. More important, when a well-trained individual leaves an organization, that person will take the benefits of training with himself or herself and may leave little behind. In a very small CBO, the departure of a single well-trained staff person can noticeably depress an organization’s short-term capacity. As a strategy for sustained change, training, education, and technical assistance may be severely limited unless continual training, technical assistance, and education opportunities are made available and used.

(p.181) Participatory Team-Based Organizational and Program Improvement

A second approach to enhancing CBO capacity involves engaging groups of employees and other stakeholders, such as youth, in a collaborative organizational change and improvement initiative designed to develop a sustainable learning environment. The goal in these approaches is to maximize the use of everyone’s capacities, perspectives, and insights to advance the organization’s success. This approach draws on systems approaches to change (Ackoff, 1981; Checkland, 1981; Churchman, 1979; Flood, 1999; Kim, 2001; Midgley, 2000; Senge, 1990) and organizational action-research paradigms (Argyris & Schon, 1985, 1996). It has been applied frequently within the context of corporate environments and is rapidly gaining currency as a potent way to change CBOs.

Relative to education, technical assistance, and training, developing an organizational learning community as a vehicle for change is time consuming and demanding of staff and other participants. It requires high levels of commitment, engagement, and leadership to succeed. It also requires skilled facilitation, as the success of the approach hinges on the ability of the group to engage in a very particular and specialized form of collective problem solving and constructive dialogue.

Although there are many specific approaches to and ways in which to engage this strategy, the essence of the participatory team-based strategy requires that a collaborative team be formed to address a specific problem. The teams’ mission is to study and reflect on the problem in pursuit of actionable strategies for change. The problem may be of any type from deciding how to respond to changing external conditions, such as an increasing number of gay and lesbian youth having poor experiences in the foster care system, to close examination of an internal problem, such as the need to rejuvenate aspects of programming that seem stale or to have lost their cutting edge. One hallmark of this approach to change is that as part of its deliberations, the group pushes itself to identify, examine, and challenge its guiding assumptions about the problem and the boundaries of these assumptions. The process works best when the team can begin to see many different views of the same thing and understand the implications of setting the boundaries around the problem in any one place or viewing it from any one position. A second hallmark of the approach is that the group ultimately develops its ability to function as a collective local learning community through the process and can apply these new learning skills to other collective problem-solving endeavors. Expert facilitators use a variety of techniques and exercises, such as scenario planning, to develop sustainable, well-functioning learning teams.

Midgley (2000, 2006) describes an example of this approach applied to a consortium of providers who believed that their local service response (p.182) to youth who were on the streets was inadequate. The project used an action-research model as a vehicle for assisting the group to view the problem from many points of view and to develop a vision for change. The first phase of the effort involved developing a picture of how young people on the streets viewed the situation. In this phase, Midgely and colleagues developed a portrait of the reality of street youth’s lives through a series of interviews. The focus on youth’s view and values as a point of departure was purposefully selected to push the team to examine the phenomenon from a point of view that they did not ordinarily adopt. The second phase involved a series of workshops in which young people on the streets, former runaway and throwaway youth, and adults working in various roles with youth visioned what ought to be and explored the gaps between the real as youth experienced it and the ideal. In the third phase of the effort, the vision from the second phase was translated into an innovative action plan for the community. These first three phases of work occurred over 9 months, illustrating the time- and labor-intensive process of building a learning community. Midgely notes significant change resulting from the three-phase initial work including new patterns of communication and collaboration among key actors in street youth’s daily lives (e.g., police, social services) and the development and implementation of new programming based on a refined value system in which mutual trust, respect, and valuing of youth are at the core.

The participatory team-based approach to change works by shifting the culture of local organizational units to a critically analytic, collaborative, and reflective approach to practice. If successful, local learning teams become able to identify and critically examine the range of choices available to them, see previously unseen organizational blind spots and traps, and attain insights on the gaps between reality and the ideal. Teams also come to place high value on collective opportunities to innovate, experiment, and change so as to bring the organization and its work closer to the collective ideal. Although the approach is in part centered on developing the group learning ability of individual employees and other stakeholders, because of its team-based and participatory nature, this approach to organizational change has greater capacity to trickle up and to sustain itself beyond the life of any one member of the initial team. The organizational learning approach is especially appropriate when change efforts focus on planning, innovation, communication, cooperation, and environmental scanning, as these are integral to the approach.


Coaching is a third, trickle-up approach to organizational change. In this approach, a knowledgeable party works one-on-one with one or more members of an organization to guide them through a task, providing feedback and (p.183) encouragement. The coaching approach improves organizational performance by giving individuals and teams information on performance and specific, immediate advice on how performance might be improved. By setting in motion a process by which individuals have ready access to feedback, mentorship, and praise, coaching helps individuals to adjust their behaviors rapidly.

The Socratic nature of some approaches to empowerment evaluation typifies a coaching approach (see Fetterman, 1994; Miller & Campbell, 2006). Miller describes an empowerment evaluation with a small CBO serving adult and youth nighttime street communities in Chicago, Illinois (Wandersman et al., 2003). Miller was invited to work with the group to help them develop their capacity to self-evaluate their nighttime street ministries, youth shelter, and youth shelter advocacy network. For the various street ministries, Miller acted as a coach, working alongside the staff 2 nights a week from 7 p.m. until 2 a.m. for 18 months. She observed and provided a sounding board to help the group reflect on their practice and its implications for organizational policy and evaluation. She offered feedback on the spot as well as in weekly staff meetings. These coaching interactions and the process of ongoing reflection and feedback resulted in multiple organizational changes, including new volunteer training requirements and training content, new volunteer management practices, an evaluation system, and a culture of evaluative thinking. (For other examples of coaching approaches with youth-serving CBOs, see Harper and colleagues’ 2004 reports on work with Project VIDA, an HIV-focused, youth-serving CBO in Chicago.)

Like the other approaches previously described, coaching assumes that when an individual receives targeted mentoring and feedback on the performance of a specific task coupled with encouragement, deserved praise, and advice on how to improve, the individual’s performance will increase measurably. By improving individual or group performance, the organization’s performance will improve in turn. Coaching has the advantage of being suitable to many targets of change, including leadership, program and organizational management, and policy and program implementation. Coaching clearly requires the long-term presence of a coach to work. It may also result principally in changes to an individual’s ways of working, rather than impact the organization at large.

Strategic Planning

A strategic plan documents what an organization intends to accomplish and how it intends to do so over a clearly defined period of time. The primary benefit of a strategic plan is that it allows an organization to identify clear links between its stated mission and its programmatic goals and objectives. Strategic plans also help organizations to develop short- and mid-term (p.184) action plans that take into account what is realistic to accomplish, given the resources and capacity available.

Strategic plans can be useful focusing devices because they offer a tool to prioritize and establish for what and to whom an organization is willing to be held to account. By providing a focus for prioritizing how effort and resources will be directed, strategic plans can become a means to organizational change and a way to prevent mission drift. The process of planning can also be beneficial to organizational actors by creating an opportunity to participate in crafting the short-term vision of the organization and the opportunity to recommit to the larger mission.

Strategic plans are suited to the tasks of shoring up the vision and managing resources well. One example of a template for creating a visioning process and document may be found in the Community Toolbox at http://ctb.ku.edu/. Cooperrider’s and colleagues’ appreciative inquiry approach provides another example of a popular approach to strategic planning (see http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/). The Center for Teen Empowerment, described earlier, has evolved an effective model for including youth in strategic planning efforts (see http://www.teenempowerment/com).

Organizational Restructuring and Resource Reallocation

In organizational restructuring and resource reallocation, an organization reconstitutes the structural arrangement of and resources available to some portion of the organization with an eye toward improving communication and cooperation, responding more effectively to critical service needs, or creating a more efficient organization. For instance, two or more units may be combined into one because they overlap in function or are consistently dependent upon one another to conduct their work, so would be better off being singly administered and in close communication. Alternatively, functions may be divided out to reflect their growth or emerging importance. Rather than combine units or create new units, a restructuring change could involve altering reporting relationships among units to improve coordination or oversight or to decrease or increase a unit’s independence, responsibility, and authority. Finally, change could involve providing a particular unit with increased resources to reflect its importance or develop its capacity or decreasing its resources to reflect that it is no longer a priority.

This approach is most applicable with organizations that are large enough to have distinct functional units and to those that are facing growth or shrinkage. Unfortunately, for many CBOs restructuring and resource reallocation occurs as a reactive strategy to manage loss of funds and shifts in funding priorities rather than as a proactive strategy of organizational development. In whatever form it takes, restructuring and resource reallocation (p.185) are typically targeted toward capacities such as cooperation, communication, resource management, and executive management.

One example of a restructuring effort is the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’s creation of an agency-wide Department of Evaluation. Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) is a very large CBO serving New York City’s HIV-affected communities including children, youth, young adult, and adult populations. From very early after its foundation, GMHC supported ad hoc research and evaluation activity performed by consultants. By the mid-1980s, several departments had one or more part- or full-time evaluators on staff. By the early 1990s, internal demand for evaluation services grew sharply, as did evaluation requirements in grants. In response to new demand and in recognition of the value of evaluation to inform agency decision making, GMHC created a single Department of Evaluation to provide services to every department. As part of this restructuring, all evaluators were housed in a single unit headed by an evaluator. The new department reported to the executive director to preserve its independence and increase its authority. Its director was added to the agency’s management team so that evaluation was salient during their deliberations on agency policy and direction. The department also received a substantial investment from the Board to support its services.

Policy Development and Implementation

The final strategy to promote change in an organization is policy development and implementation. Policies tell employees, volunteers, and youth what behaviors are and are not acceptable within the setting and can set the tone for an organization’s climate. Polices provide guidance on what kind of place the organization desires to be for its members by specifying rules of conduct, member rights, and the basis for rewards and sanctions. Policies are also essential to protect the organization and its staff and youth’s safety and confidentiality. Policies may address any area of organizational life from volunteer appreciation to computer use to work-family leave practices to Board functioning to program procedures to client records.

We work with a small youth drop-in center that has recently set new policies to promote physical safety in its facility. The center has traditionally had and enforced policies to create a desirable positive climate, such as forbidding the use of foul language and being drunk or high while using center space. The center has not had explicit and evenly enforced policies around things such as carrying weapons while in the center or requiring youth to register to use the center, operating on an honor system. So, until recently, it was possible for a youth to use the center without anyone establishing that he or she was weapon-free and for youth to be in the center without anyone knowing who he or she is. Two violent incidents prompted the center to create and enforce new policies, including that all youth must register by providing the (p.186) center with a minimum of information and legal identification prior to being allowed in center space. In addition to improving actual and perceived safety, the new registration policy has had unplanned beneficial consequences for the organization, including accurate documentation of unduplicated service use and basic characteristics of youth who come to the center.

Approaches to Measurement

Measuring the impact of capacity-building efforts in the context of a CBO is challenging, given the very small number of staff and work units that are typical of CBO settings. Perhaps the most common method of assessing change in organizational capacity is the use of survey methods to track changes in staff skills, knowledge, and perceptions. However, given the small size of a CBO, this approach may be of limited use. CBOs may have too few staff to aggregate individual-level questionnaire data. At best, questionnaires may be used as self-assessment devices on which staff may monitor their own progress. For most small CBOs, qualitative methods that draw on interviews, observations, and document analysis are most suitable to capture organizational change. We identify several common ways in which these methods may be used to document change in CBOs.

Town Hall Meetings and Retreats

Town hall meetings and retreats can be used to gauge change in how an organization is performing. Town hall meetings and retreats provide an opportunity for parents, youth, community members, staff, and management to reflect together on how well the organization is doing in improving its capacity. Often, staff and management at CBOs are too busy to engage in meaningful discussions about these topics among themselves or with key stakeholders. Fetterman’s taking-stock approach (Fetterman & Wandersman, 2005) provides one useful structure for having a diverse group of adult and youth organizational stakeholders assess how the organization is doing relative to a set of goals for change. Fetterman, for example, has regularly involved youth participants in applying the approach in school settings (see Fetterman, 2005, for an example. Also, see the Community Tool Box for more information on self-evaluation procedures http://ctb.ku.edu/tools/en/part_j.htm).

Ethnographic Audits

Ethnographic audits are focused investigations of a particular area of organizational functioning. Audits may be conducted by staff or by outside researchers. For the CBO, conducting a self-audit may be a cost-effective (p.187) means of measuring their current capacity as well as assessing organization change over time. Audits may include both qualitative and quantitative methodology. For example, an organization may conduct quantitative fiscal audits to evaluate the management and allocation of resources. Ethnographic audits may include participant observation, key-informant interviews, focus groups, and unstructured interviews with staff, youth, and other stakeholders, such as parents (Fetterman, 1991). Youth can be trained to carry out many of these data collection, analysis, interpretation, and reporting activities, as the success of Project REP exemplifies.

Case Studies

The use of case studies to evaluate organizational change can be especially useful to obtain a holistic picture of the change process and its results. Case studies are a method for studying a single case (e.g., an organization) or a small set of multiple cases (e.g., four departments in an organization) using multiple methods of data collection (Stake, 1995, 2005; Yin, 1989). Case studies may include participant observation, interviews, and review of archival documents. Case studies take into account the context surrounding the case of interest and facilitate close examination of the particular history and events in the case at hand. A case study approach is best done by a researcher who is trained in case study and mixed-methods research, though youth may be able to participate in defining questions, collecting data, data analysis, and data interpretation and reporting.


The state of scholarship on CBO capacity development is in its infancy, particularly among youth-focused CBOs. Challenges to measurement provide one reason why so little is known about CBO capacity and how it can be changed. For this reason, we see advances in measurement among the most important areas for future work in this field. One area of promise applies cluster evaluation (Barley & Jenness, 1993) and meta-evaluation techniques (Stufflebeam, 2001) to CBO case studies, both of which allow for building a knowledge base across cases of capacity building practice. For instance, Miller and Campell (2006) used meta-evaluation to describe various approaches to empowerment evaluation practice and the organizational outcomes associated with each form of practice. The data for this meta-evaluation comprised 47 case studies.

A second promising approach draws on systems methodologies, such as critical systems heuristics, systems dynamics, agent-based modeling, and soft systems methodology (see Williams & Imam, 2007, for an anthology on systems approaches to intervention and evaluation). These methods typically (p.188) combine the intervention and assessment process, though can be used to represent how a system behaves in the absence of an intervention effort. For example, system dynamics is often used to develop a solution to an identified problem facing an organization by developing a model of the problem and testing out dynamic hypotheses virtually (Sterman, 2000). Systems dynamics can use any kind of data, including anecdotal data, to develop a testable computer model of the underlying processes that give rise to the organizational behavior of interest (see, e.g., Hirsch, Levine, & Miller, 2007; Miller, Levine, Khamarko, Valenti, & McNall, 2006).

Future work must concern itself with the role of youth in the process of developing and assessing capacity in youth-oriented CBOs. Given the centrality of youth empowerment to many youth-focused CBOs, developing youth-engaged capacity interventions and assessing whether and how these build youth and organizational capacity would be especially beneficial.

Finally, better knowledge of how to intervene in the CBO context hinges on documenting internal efforts at capacity development. Internally directed efforts at CBO capacity building are believed to be more common than expert-directed interventions (Light, 2004). Researchers could learn from communities what capacity building might entail, how it can be conducted, and what works in the CBO context by focused study of indigenous capacity-building efforts.


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