Capacity Building in Action



VISTA members build capacity. But how will you know if you have succeeded?

In this tutorial, you will examine several capacity-building projects. Afterwards, you should be able to:

  • Identify elements of successful capacity building
  • Describe projects that weren’t as successful at building capacity

How Will I Know If I Built Capacity?

picture - VISTA precariously holding up boxes Capacity building means working with project staff and the community to create, expand, or strengthen systems and processes to:

  • Increase an organization’s effectiveness
  • Reduce poverty in the community

The next section has three scenarios about capacity building. Decide if the VISTAs achieved that goal and consider:

  • What will the projects look like after the VISTAs depart?
  • What will the VISTAs leave behind for their organizations?
  • What products, knowledge, and relationships will the VISTAs transfer to the communities?
  • What does a successful VISTA project look like?

Scenario 1: The Business Center

Read about Norma Sok and Uplift Resources. Be prepared to answer questions as you go:


Norma surveyed minority businesswomen helped by Uplift Resources. She found many needed professional-looking business cards, letterhead, and marketing materials.

Her agency had a copy machine and a couple of old computers clients could use.

Uplift logo

Norma thought Uplift Resources could set up a “business center” where clients could design and copy materials themselves or get help with these jobs at a reasonable rate.

Getting Started

picture - Norma in business centerNorma talked to her supervisor and executive director, who agreed to reconfigure the agency’s reading room into a business center. Two of the lesser-used copy machines (one color, one black and white) were moved into the room.

Spare computers and printers were pressed into service and loaded with graphic-design software and a market-research database, which Norma obtained at nonprofit rates. Norma got local printers and graphic designers to offer discounts to Uplift clients. She also recruited volunteers to teach classes on business communications and design for print and the Web.



Norma solicited national and local copy shops and mailbox stores to offer discounts or gift cards to Uplift clients in exchange for advertising their products and services in the business center.

This ensured clients had other options if the business center was too busy at the time they wanted to use it.

Scenario 2: César’s Spreadsheets

Read about César Alvarez and Family Empowerment, Inc. Be prepared to answer questions as you go:

VISTA CesarOne of the objectives on César’s VISTA Assignment Description (VAD) was to update a donor database and improve donor-tracking systems. The existing database was outdated and incomplete, with many errors and duplicate records. It was difficult to create the customized queries and reports César needed to analyze donor activity.

Because the database was created in Access, the agency had to rely on its overworked part-time tech support staff to add new fields to the tracking forms. The agency didn’t have money for the donor-tracking or contact-management software it needed.

Staying on Track

VISTA Cesar at computerAn experienced Excel user, César decided to create customized spreadsheets that would pull donor records from the Access database. This would enable him and the development director to do tracking and analysis. Over the course of a week, he built an elaborate workbook with complex formulas, links to other spreadsheets, and pivot tables.

The spreadsheets were helpful at first, but after several weeks it was obvious that the new system made tracking and analyzing donor data even more unwieldy than before.

The links between the workbook, the database, and other spreadsheets often broke; even small tweaks often meant a couple of hours of re-writing formulas.

Alternative Approaches

Scenario 3: Making Training Stronger

Read about VISTA Leader Lorelei Pokranz and the Collegiate Service-Learning Corps. Be prepared to answer questions as you go:

VISTA LoreleiLorelei wanted to revise her VISTA members’ orientation to emphasize the organizational culture of non-profits. She feels it is important for her members to learn about the culture of the non-profits in which they serve.

To do this, Lorelei reviewed the list of non-profits her VISTAs would serve in. She then thought about who she knew in each agency and what questions she might ask. She also planned to ask a few of the people she had built relationships with to come to speak at the orientation.


Lorelei contacted executive directors and program managers at the non-profits.
She asked for tips such as:

  • Who VISTAs should contact at their agencies
  • The challenges and opportunities of working in their communities
  • The five most important things to know about their organizations

Lorelei's Orientation Session

Lorelei co-delivered the orientation with a literacy program manager and the executive director of a food bank. The session included:

  • A day-in-the-life of a non-profit program manager,
  • The challenges and opportunities of working in a low-income community, and
  • The five most important things VISTAs should know about working in different non-profits.

How Will You Define Success?

Think about your year ahead. What activities will you perform for your organization? How will you define success?

Take a few minutes to enter your thoughts into a journal. You can write in complete sentences or simply type a list. Many VISTAs keep a journal throughout their service year. The journal gives them an opportunity to reflect on their service during their year and to look back on the experience in the future.


Congratulations! You have finished this tutorial.

picture - Norma at copierSuccess may look different for each assignment, but all successful capacity building projects share this characteristic:

The work begun by the VISTA member will continue after the VISTA leaves.

During the year ahead, take time to step back and look at the work you are doing. Ask yourself:

“Am I still building capacity? What can I do to ensure the transfer of this project to the community after I leave?”

Keep fine-tuning your activities, so you can have the greatest impact on your organization's ability to fight poverty in your community.