Learning Together

Small learning cohorts give nonprofit leaders opportunities to tackle big problems

Chief Impact & Strategy Officer
March 31, 2021

No single person or organization can solve complex social challenges alone. Addressing pressing community issues requires developing individual leaders and effective organizations and building strategic coalitions and networks between them for long-term sustainability and success.

The more capable our community-serving organizations are, the greater their impact can be. Nonprofit organizations often help people develop—teaching young people to grow food, helping refugee families navigate a new country, connecting learners of all ages to education and training—but how do leaders of nonprofits hone their skills and build their own capacities? 

This question is at the heart of The Lab Capacity Building Program, our seven-month program for nonprofit professionals that provides participants critical time and resources to become more effective, efficient, and cooperative leaders.

Launched in 2019, the program is now entering its third year. To date, it has brought dozens of leaders from diverse organizations across the region together to innovate and problem-solve. With the guidance of coaches from Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies, participants meet monthly to address challenges that have stymied their organizations’ abilities to increase their impact, and learn from each other’s ideas, trials, and successes. 

“There is incredible value in receiving feedback from other nonprofit professionals who aren’t entrenched in the day-to-day activities of our organization. Building a connected sector is essential to our ability to drive social change,” one member of the first cohort, Health Education Council’s Debra Oto-Kent told us. While in the program in 2019, she and a colleague worked to better measure the impact of their organization’s services. Since graduating, they’ve used insights gained to inform Health Education Council’s pandemic response, implementing novel ways to meet the crushing need for health resources.

“The reality is that COVID-19 has required us to innovate, innovate, innovate—to generate an idea quickly, implement it, get feedback, and then make it better. It was really beneficial to experience that feedback loop in The Lab. Being able to implement that model has been essential during the pandemic, and we’ve been doing it warp-speed,” she said.

Ensuring nonprofit leaders can strengthen their capacity during the pandemic remains a priority. No matter their mission or size, nonprofits have been impacted by the pandemic, and capacity building is vital  to help them emerge stronger. To continue The Lab’s second cohort during the pandemic, we moved our monthly sessions online and shifted the curriculum to ensure participants’ quickly changing needs drove the conversations. 

For Buddy Hale and Rachel Freund from The Library of MusicLandria, an instrument lending library that offers music education and live shows, that meant exploring new ways to fulfill their organization’s mission at a time when many of its programs were paused by the pandemic. In The Lab, Buddy and Rachel were challenged to design a new MusicLandria product they could test, gather feedback about, and develop further to advance their organization’s impact—a key component of the program’s innovation curriculum. 

As a result, they launched a radio station focused exclusively on showcasing the Sacramento region’s music scene, which has tripled the number of musicians served through MusicLandria’s programs, Buddy told us. “The Lab was a game-changer for us,” he said. “It encouraged us to look at the work we do and the community we serve with fresh eyes.” 

So, what’s next for The Lab?

We know that strong nonprofit organizations have a positive and powerful impact on our community. The environment in which our sector works is rapidly changing—meaning that the solutions that worked yesterday may  not work tomorrow. Still, the skills nonprofit  leaders are learning today will resonate long into the future, beyond the pandemic to whatever difficult moments follow. 

The Lab itself is something of an experiment. Each cohort is an opportunity to test the ripple effect of this type of deep, deliberate capacity building—not only for the outcomes of participant organizations, but across  the many networks they touch. So far,  it is demonstrating what we aimed for: Participants are finding new confidence, building leadership skills and applying them to strengthen their organizations  and our community.