Best Starts Capacity Building: Interview with RVC

Best Starts for Kids is investing in a number of capacity building efforts. This is a series to explain what we mean by capacity building and why we think it is so important. You can find all earlier blog posts in the series linked at the end of this post. We sat down with RVC, a partner in this critical capacity building work. Today we share takeaways from that conversation including RVC’s unique approach to capacity building, the power of relationships and how we can continue to improve.  


Best Starts sat down with April Nishimura from RVC, one our capacity-building support providers partnering with community based organizations within our prenatal-to-age-five strategies. April graciously shared her organization’s unique approach to capacity building and learnings from their partnership with Best Starts for Kids.

What is RVC and why do you do capacity building work?

RVC, originally Rainier Valley Corps, now stands for Rooted and Vibrant Communities. We are a holistic capacity building organization. created to serve communities and leaders of color. There is a gap in the nonprofit sector that disproportionately affects community based organizations led by and for communities of color. Community led organizations started by communities of color often lack adequate staffing to apply for grants that would get them access the very resources they need to hire staff! This puts them in a funding paradox where they are unable to get the financial support they need to resource the work.

To address this, RVC started with a fellowship program for leaders of color to work in organizations that serve communities of color for two years – like a version of Americorps but paying a living wage and for a longer period of time. We support leaders to develop skills such as fundraising and back office management. Since then we have grown to also provide fiscal sponsorship and capacity building services to meet the demands of the organizations we work with.  The foundation of all this work is that RVC’s staff are devoted to communities of color. Our staff have a pulse on what it means to run a community based organization and are dedicated to building authentic relationships with our partners.

What’s unique about RVC’s work and approach to capacity building?

We do holistic capacity building. That means organizations often need more staff, money and support in organizational development. When you do just one of those, it’s usually not enough to turn the tide. Holistic means we work with organizations for minimum of 2 years. It’s not project based which is super helpful! We’re not in and out but commit to a whole learning cycle and the necessary length of time to develop strong trust with the organization. We often place one of our fellows with an organization we’ve worked with to continue support.

There are systemic things that don’t serve small grassroots organizations. So we don’t just come in with general best practices. It’s more overall advocacy to change and adapt systems to better fit their actual needs. Many organizations are facing similar challenges. Lots more money coming into an organization is great! And that also means more growth, more necessary infrastructure, more staff – all of which requires more overall support for success.

April collaborating with Best Starts partner Michelle Mitchell-Brannon from Atlantic Street Center. Photo Credit: Emilie Carr.

What’s a lesson that you’ve learned? Any takeaways so far in this Best Starts partnership process?

People really care about the work they are doing! It really does take a fair amount of time to fully understand the leaders in these organizations—their vision, their style of work and pain points. But the depth of care means that it’s so important for those leaders to be known and seen.

A lot of the time, folks we meet and interact with—they have a huge depth of history with the organization and level of knowledge. We are just scratching the surface! It takes a long time to learn from them and be able to better support them. Their imprint is so strong on the organization, so relationship with them is essential.

[We quickly interrupt this interview to highlight how amazing RVC is at recognizing the value of relationships, including existing relationships and trust. An example from a Best Starts partners below!

After observing the capacity building work that Dr. Sharon Knight had done with us through the first phase of capacity building work, April saw that Dr. Knight has developed a strong trusting relationship with our team and she could see that we have a need to continue working with Dr. Knight to build our organizational capacity.  Through a collaborative conversation among our management team and Dr. Knight, April let me know that she was willing to talk with Best Starts and see if she could get an approval to transfer the capacity funding they were awarded to us, so we may use the fund to pay Dr. Knight and enable us to continue our capacity building activities with her. April’s objective was noble. She focused on what our organization needs, not on the funding they received. Her willingness to share the funding and focusing on best outcomes for our organization not only shows her unselfishness, but also demonstrates the integrity of herself and RVC. We appreciated April very much for what she is willing to give up for us so we may have seamless capacity building activities continuously.  Our communities and organizations are blessed because of RVC, a true champion advocates for best outcomes of community based organizations.

-Ginger Kwan, Executive Director, Open Doors for Multicultural Families

Feeling inspired? Great–back to our interview with April!]

What are the key elements that make capacity building successful for communities of color?

The relationship piece is so key. And so is being culturally aware and responsive. For example, one of our staff members led a retreat with an organization that is predominantly Muslim so she made sure to build in prayer time into the retreat. Although this is just a small thing, it helps signal that people can bring their whole self to the work. We realized we need to better overall about being culturally responsive to the organizations we serve, and this takes getting to know them deeply.

We also understand that the size or model for every organization may be unique. So rather than steer every organization towards one idea of what an organization should look like, we should be more flexible. Not every organization needs to grow to achieve their mission for example! They may be fulfilling their mission at their existing small size.

We also help small organizations obtain general operating money. The main thing POC organizations need is general operating dollars! Organizations also need to tell their story and why it is important. Ask and demand what is needed to do the work. They are so used to doing things on a shoestring but that’s not actually fair to themselves.

Let’s celebrate small, POC organizations more! They often are invisible. They are not more insular than other work, but may not have the same connections and networks for larger visibility and more opportunities.

Any challenges or unanticipated limitations?

We plan out a two year process but its hard to know when certain landmarks will actually happen. When those benchmarks come along, it may not make sense anymore. So we need to pause more to adapt and evaluate what makes sense with the leaders we work with. Folks we work with are so busy and capacity building is usually extra work on top of other work, so we always try to be responsive to the timeline and schedules of those we work with.

It’s actually ok if your original plan is not what ends up happening. We need to come to terms with that, re-evaluate and course correct. Predictions are often wrong so don’t plow ahead if it no longer makes sense!

Different cultures also have different orientations to planning so we should educate ourselves on what folks are comfortable with and be flexible.

Planning and deliverables can be limiting because organizations are culturally responsive and often respond to change the original plan to better respond to communities—and we should change the environment so that funding is still supporting them when they do change course in order to respond to community priorities. We need to trust organizations and how they choose to support their community based on what is needed. Don’t micromanage the relationship and deliverables.

What’s special about the Best Starts partnership? What has that meant for us and this work?

It has been really special and we really value the relationships with Best Starts staff. We can push back and have the conversations we need (on both sides!). That’s unusual for funders and government. We both are able to learn and adjust to better serve our partners. We have the same clear goal but often different information on what is possible and what we are working with.

We especially appreciate Best Starts in three ways:

  • Funding the kinds of organizations it funded – smaller organizations working with specific ethnic communities
  • Awarding multi-year funding
  • Providing capacity-building support

It’s so important to give money but also support, not simply one or the other. We made an exception in working with Best Starts for Kids because of the way it is structured. However, we’d love to see more general operating funds available in the future!

How can others apply models similar to this one?

  1. Have long term relationships—longer than a year at least!
  2. Make sure that communication is happenings so if things aren’t working for partners that they can share that (keep in mind that power dynamics make it tricky)
  3. Support early childhood and development on a large level. Prioritizing these efforts go such a long way!

RVC is still learning. There is no way we have perfected this. We make mistakes and our partners are really awesome and we are learning together. But this work is not a clear equation or formula. Organizations are really complex things that involve humans who are also complex! Plus there are multiple other layers from different generations, countries of origin, etc. For anyone else in this field, we are always glad to learn from others.

Thank you to our partners for their graciousness!


Previous blog posts in our Capacity Building series: 

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