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The ABCs of Building Organizational Capacity

March 1, 2023

Implementation Resilience in the Face of Challenges

Today, human service organizations grapple with many unprecedented challenges—challenges that are systemic and impact the implementation of evidence-based programs and practices with quality. Our most vulnerable populations–like children experiencing poverty, the disability community, and communities of color–are most affected by these organizational challenges.  

How can organizations make their implementation efforts more effective so they can address the various needs of the communities they serve despite organizational obstacles? 

One answer is to build organizational capacity. You are here, so you know that building capacity is important. But, did you know that building capacity is more than improving staff competency? Building capacity includes attention to all types of capacity like psychological, behavioral and structural, and at all levels, such as individual, organization, network and system (Metz, et al., 2020).

In this post we’ll debunk a common myth that building capacity is simply about improving staff competency. Focusing at the organizational level, we’ll provide you with 3 capacity building activities you can leverage to strengthen your organizational infrastructure and systems to sustain effective implementation efforts through challenging times. We call these activities the ABCs of building organizational capacity. 

Assess Implementation Capacity

In the words of Mike Mattos, “A journey does not begin with the first step; it begins by facing the right direction.” The capacity building process generally begins with identifying organizational strengths and areas for growth. Assessing implementation capacity serves as the compass to help organizations move in the best direction for building capacity and sustaining effective and long-term implementation of evidence-based practices and programs.

What does assessing implementation capacity mean? 

Assessing implementation capacity involves examining the extent to which an organization has the “ability to use implementation methods and techniques to adopt, use, and sustain evidence-based practices or programs” (Ward, 2019). The value in assessing implementation capacity is that it allows organizations to conduct a reflective self-assessment on key areas vital to implementation, such as leadership, infrastructure and resources, data use, and communication and engagement, among others. 

This action-oriented approach is data driven and highlights organizational strengths and opportunities for growth. Assessing implementation capacity also sheds light on the degree to which the organizational infrastructure and systems are able to sustain effective implementation of key initiatives. 
Assessing implementation capacity allows leaders and implementation teams to assess its current reality against the desired future state. This powerful process helps organizations answer two key questions: Where are we? and Where do we want to be? As action planning becomes a natural follow up to collecting capacity data, organizations can reflect on and make adjustments to its overall infrastructure and systems to best support effective implementation of evidence-based practices and programs. Bottom line, organizations that prioritize assessing their implementation capacity can proactively reduce internal obstacles while continuing on the best path to successfully meet the demands of communities with some of the most pressing needs.

Build a Strong Implementation Team

Imagine your organization being so focused on its quality of implementation that practices were being executed and services delivered with greater efficiency and effectiveness across the organization. Now imagine that you had a team dedicated to making this happen, resulting in the diverse populations you serve receiving the services and support they deserve. Building a strong implementation team can help you “make it happen.” 

What is an implementation team?

An implementation team leverages implementation science principles to support the widespread use of evidence-based practices and programs and attend to equity at each step in the implementation process (Ward et al., 2018). 

How does an implementation team function?

The implementation team intentionally works to “make it happen.” “Make it happen” is a popular phrase utilized in the implementation science world and refers to the mission-driven process of purposefully utilizing implementation science and practice in an effort to get to socially significant outcomes. The Implementation Team works to “make it happen” by planning, communicating, utilizing data-based decision making, ensuring training and coaching, and allocating resources (Fixsen, et al., 2019), all to promote effective implementation.

How do you build a strong implementation team? Try these 3 actions:

  1. Establish implementation team selection criteria
    • Identify individuals with a desire to serve on the team 
    • Assemble a group that have the general skills and knowledge of a practice or program as well as the change process
    • Ensure diverse perspectives are represented and include the voices of those intended to implement the program or practice
  2. Create a team charter to clarify the team’s purpose, roles and responsibilities, and goals
  3. Ensure adequate resources are available to support effective implementation (e.g., funding, professional development, coaching, scheduling, access to relevant and timely data)

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Transparency and inclusivity are important elements of communication when strengthening capacity in any organization. Yet, planning for and actively utilizing communication as a tool to support capacity building efforts remain a goal for many organizations. 

How do you promote transparent and inclusive communication to support building organizational capacity? 

Organizations would do well to create a communication plan. Not your typical communication plan. A plan that strategically focuses on strengthening and sustaining internal and external communication to remove barriers that prevent our most vulnerable populations from receiving high-quality service and support.

What is a communication plan?

A communication plan, also known as a dissemination plan, is bi-directional. It is designed to ensure key messages are communicated regularly and as intended, and that the voices of diverse audiences–those delivering and those benefiting from the services and supports provided–are represented and actively engaged in communication and organizational decision making. 

What key components should you include in a communication plan? Below are a few suggestions to help you get started.

  • Mission and Purpose of the Communication Plan 
    (What is the clear purpose and mission of the Communication Plan?)
  • Practice-policy Communication Cycles
    (Who is responsible for ensuring feedback and information gathered through communications is used to inform, reduce barriers, and celebrate successes?)
  • Information or Messages 
    ​​(What needs to be communicated? How does the information change over time as the organization goes deeper into practice?)
  • Diverse Audience Perspectives 
    (Who needs to be communicated with?)
  • Methods 
    (Are a variety of modes used: conference key notes, presentations, meetings, Webpages, Webcasts, Email, etc.?)
  • Frequency 
    (How often? Is there a schedule?)
  • Individual(s) Responsible 
    (Who is responsible? What is the role of leadership?)
  • Indicators of Success 
    (What data is used and how often to determine effectiveness of communication?)


Reducing organizational barriers is critically important when it comes to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable populations. Building organizational capacity plays a key role in barrier busting. Yes, capacity building includes improving the skills and competencies of staff, but it is so much more. Building organizational capacity involves intentionally reflecting on and attending to the infrastructure and systems needed to support the effective implementation of evidence-based practices and programs to ensure communities get what they need and deserve. Simply put, building organizational capacity is a deliberate multi-dimensional process that can no longer be thought of as a reactionary approach to overcoming challenges, but rather as a proactive investment in meeting human needs.  

Related Resources

Visit the publicly accessible NIRN Active Implementation Hub for more resources on building organizational capacity and enhancing implementation of evidence-based practices and programs. Be sure to check out information on the following:

Capacity Assessment Administration Course
Implementation Teams
Communication (Dissemination) Plan


Buffum, A., Mattos, M. and Weber, C., (2012). Simplifying response to intervention. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Fixsen, D. L., Blase, K. A., & Van Dyke, M. K., (2019). Implementation practice & science. Chapel Hill, NC: Active Implementation Research Network.

Metz, A., Louison, L., Burke, K., Albers, B., & Ward, C. (2020). Implementation support practitioner profile. Guiding principles and core competencies for implementation practice. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Ward, C., (2019, November 5). Exploring connections between implementation capacity and fidelity [Practicing Implementation Blog]. National Implementation Research Network, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.