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My First Month at MAVA: What IS Capacity Building?

My First Month at MAVA: What IS Capacity Building?
By Holly Daniels
Posted: 2021-12-01T18:32:00Z

Just over a month ago I started working at the Minnesota Alliance for Volunteer Advancement (MAVA), as the new Greater MN Program Manager. 


And you know, when you get a new job, you tell people about it. You tell everybody! You explain over and over what your organization does. Some jobs are easy to explain, for example teachers, dentists, clowns — the day-to-day work is easy for people to imagine.


MAVA is a capacity building organization, and my initial attempts to explain capacity buiding left my friends and family scratching their heads. 


But I think I’m starting to get it. 


I had a lightbulb moment a couple weeks ago when I attended a webinar on writing capacity building grants, put on by GrantStation. The presenter, Alice Ruhnke, founder of the Grant Advantage, described capacity building by comparing it to direct service.


What’s the difference?


Direct Service

Many volunteer engagement organizations provide some kind of direct service:

  • They use volunteers to provide services that immediately address a person/client’s needs.
  •  Direct Service refers to “WHAT” they do to fulfill their mission.
  • It’s about meeting needs.
  • Each group/organization is the expert on the need they exist to meet.

Capacity Building

 MAVA provides capacity building services to organizations and groups who engage volunteers:

  • MAVA’s services strengthen and build an organization or group’s capacity to operate effectively.
  • Capacity building looks at “HOW” the mission can be better fulfilled using volunteers.
  • It’s about continuous improvement.
  • MAVA’s expertise is volunteer engagement.


Capacity Building: Three types

That same webinar laid out three different types of capacity building (organizational, community, and individual) that helped me see MAVA’s services as the embodiment of continuous improvement.


Organizational Capacity Building is all about strengthening organizational structures and systems. MAVA’s prime example of this is Service Enterprise, a change management process that empowers organizations to more strategically leverage volunteer skills. The Service Enterprise training and certification initiative has been described as the MBA for nonprofits. 


Community Capacity Building concentrates on a geographic area, or a community of a common purpose. Knowing that organizations are stronger in collaboration than isolation, MAVA creates and cultivates networks — strategic partnerships between volunteer engagement organizations. Some networks convene to exchange ideas among peers in certain sectors, such as AHV, the Administrators of Healthcare Volunteers. Other MAVA networks, such as the six regional Minnesota District Councils (available to members and non-members), meet quarterly to provide support for each other around unique regional challenges and opportunities. For more information on networks, email me at!


Individual Capacity Building is about changing attitudes and behaviors. MAVA’s core value of inclusion means we are committed to Diversity Equity and Inclusion. While the work of dismantling systemic inequalities in volunteerism must happen on an organizational level, those organizations are made up of individuals! MAVA invites individuals into self-reflection and personal antiracism work, and provides practical strategies for inclusion and racial equities in volunteer engagement. MAVA offers:

  • Trainings such as “Antiracism 101” and “No ‘One Right Way’: Imagining New Systems for Volunteer Engagement.”
  • Affinity groups for BIPOC and white ally individuals to seek support and growth.
  • MAVA’s 2021 Dismantling Inequities Conference is coming up next week on December 9-10!


A month into working at MAVA, my grasp of what we have to offer is ever-expanding. Lately when I tell someone about my new job, I mention that we are a capacity building organization — people go to organizations for support, and we hope organizations come to MAVA for support. We collaborate with organizations to help them do what they do, only better!


As Karmit Bulman, MAVA’s Executive Director, said in my first staff meeting, “Working at MAVA means I get to positively impact every single cause I care about. I don’t have to choose.”