Student Perspective: Capacity Building in the Social Sector

Lena Backe, C’15, was a summer social impact fellow with WSII; she received funding and support to work in San Francisco. In today’s blog post, she shares her experience consulting for a branch of the enduring national nonprofit, Meal on Wheels. 

Capacity building. This buzzword is frequently thrown around the social impact space.

It’s commonly used both in relation to the process of building social sector talent, and about growing the impact of social enterprises and nonprofits.

meals on wheels
Photo credit: Meals on Wheels San Francisco

As a summer fellow with New Sector Alliance, I had the opportunity to explore this concept through an on-site placement with a nonprofit organization.

Through New Sector, I was part of a small cohort of students who were paired with nonprofits and community organizations to complete capacity building projects. In addition to our on-site work, we received bi-weekly training from nonprofit and for-profit consultants to learn how to maximize our impact.

My fellowship placement was at Meals on Wheels of San Francisco (MOWSF), a nonprofit that delivers meals to elderly individuals in San Francisco who are unable to provide for themselves due to monetary and/or physical limitations.

While Meals on Wheels is a well-known organization, few individuals realize that it does much more than simply serve food. It also provides seniors with social workers, nutritional counseling, volunteer services and more.

It was this very complexity of services executed by MOWSF that necessitated my position this summer.

My assignment was to craft an organization-wide document that distilled the most important and up-to-date information, statistics, and messaging into one resource so that all departments could talk about their unique services and impact in the same way.

In this role, I was able to combine my coursework from Penn, the insights I gained from fellowship training, and my background in nonprofit work from my previous summer at B Lab. 

In the two and a half months I spent meeting with department heads and key leadership, searching through archived documents, and sourcing data, I felt that I was truly able to gain a unique insight into how nonprofits operate.

This learning process involved getting to know key elements such as how different departments quantified success, what angle of messaging they took when speaking to various stakeholders, and how overall mission influenced program creation. As my interviews and research progressed, I was able to apply approaches gained in training to more effectively and efficiently bring the project to fruition.

When I presented the 25-page document at the end of my fellowship, I received an unexpected wave of appreciation from individuals in all capacities and departments expressing their excitement about the new resource and how they planned to use it in their respective roles.

This outpouring of enthusiasm made me realize the vast importance of both cohesion and recognition in a large, expanding non-profit.

While each of MOWSF’s service components were successfully helping seniors with their respective programs, the organization lacked a resource that clarified how these pieces fit together and made Meals on Wheels so impactful. With the creation of this guide, individuals could now not only consistently talk about the organization’s work as a whole, but also better understand their own role in the organization’s achievement of loftier, larger-picture aims.

In all, my experience taught me that sometimes building social impact is not about program expansion, prestigious grants, or catchy marketing campaigns. Instead, the process is often internal and is about getting to the core of understanding how an organization makes a positive impact in the community and creating a means by which individuals can clearly convey this effect to others.

Lena BackeLena Backe is a senior in the College studying Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE). She is passionate about international development and environmental sustainability and how the two interplay within the field of social impact.