Four decades ago, advocates for the Rappahannock River banded together to battle a proposed dam that would have flooded part of the waterway. They scored a victory.

But 20 years later, some of the same people found themselves working on a new threat to the river—rapid growth and development. This time, it was the rivers’ defenders, the Friends of the Rappahannock, who found themselves flooded with work.

The volunteer-driven effort that worked well during the dam crisis, struggled to grapple with a changing landscape as the Rappahannock watershed became one of the fastest growing parts of Virginia.

“There were development projects left and right,” said John Tippett, executive director of the group. “We could respond to two or three of them, but not 200.”

Critical decisions were made during meetings when no river supporters were in the room.

“The river needed a voice during business hours,” Tippett said. “We had great, motivated, capable volunteers, but we needed people who could be at the table during the work day.”

The newly formed organization had run into the paradox faced by many watershed groups: It was created to save a river, but to succeed, it had to find the time, energy and funding to save itself.

In the world of nonprofit groups, it’s called “capacity building”—a suite of activities that not only keeps an organization alive, but allows it to achieve meaningful results with limited resources.

Capacity building usually goes unnoticed and seldom reaps praise. Yet every on-the-ground restoration project or education program happens because someone invested time and money in capacity building.

For the Friends of the Rappahannock, that investment came from the Virginia Environmental Endowment, which awarded the group $50,000 in 1989, to be used over the course of two years.

The grant allowed them to hire a full-time director, double their membership and develop a river festival as an annual funding source.

“With a staff person in place, we could also take on more projects and start to develop a reputation,” Tippett said. “Now our reputation is our best asset.”

The Friends of the Rappahannock has become well-known for using dialogue, consensus building, and education as its preferred tools for problem solving. The approach earned the trust of local governments, who partnered with them to explore low-impact development. After several years, Stafford County hired the group to implement its local watershed plan.

“Most importantly, we moved from being reactive to proactive,” Tippett said. “That was a quantum leap, and some organizations never get there.”

Yet both private and public grantmakers are often reluctant to fund capacity building, with a preference for making project-specific grants that yield more high-profile, measurable results.

By contrast, capacity building takes place at desks, in meeting rooms and on kitchen tables, where program leaders plan strategies and set goals. They collect names and addresses of volunteers, and develop web sites. They ask for donations and apply for grants, and recruit members for the board of directors. They meet with other groups, who play a role in the restoration effort.

These tasks are far less dramatic than more direct restoration projects, such as reforesting stream banks or staging a river rally.

But leaders in the Bay restoration effort have increasingly recognized that an effective grass-roots network—which many consider essential to restoring the Bay and its more than 100,000 miles of tributaries—requires building stronger groups.

“If we are serious about moving up into the streams and rivers, then we have to do more to help groups along the streams and rivers fully participate,” said David O’Neill, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Trust, a Maryland-based grantmaking organization.

Now, help is on the way. The Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, an association of private and public grantmakers, has announced a Capacity Building Initiative that will channel both funds and training for capacity building to scores of groups engaged in protecting and restoring the Bay watershed.

The Funders Network began meeting in 2003 to help grantmakers exchange information about efforts to protect and restore the Bay. The exchange drew attention to the need for capacity building in the Bay watershed and the lack of funds available to support it.

Several members of the Funders Network created the Capacity Building Initiative, which was unveiled in November at the Chesapeake Bay Watershed Forum.

The program took more than a year to develop, shaped by conversations with 50 grantmakers and watershed groups and by exploring similar programs elsewhere in the nation.

In 2007, the Capacity Building Initiative will award three-year grants from a $675,000 funding pot to 15–20 watershed groups in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. The grants are financed by the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, Rausch Foundation and Town Creek Foundation.

A range of training opportunities and technical assistance will also be available, even to organizations that do not receive grants.

“The Capacity Building Initiative should translate to more and better- designed restoration projects, a stronger voice for policies that benefit the rivers, and river report cards that track and communicate progress,” O’Neill said.

If funders serving Pennsylvania and West Virginia join the partnership, the program may be open to groups in those locations as well.

O’Neill said the program indicates a philosophical shift in the foundation community.

“Years ago, foundations provided operational grants with no strings attached, but it was hard to measure results,” O’Neill said. “So we moved toward project funding. Now, we’re looking at a hybrid—funds for capacity building, but tied to benchmarks that help show results.”

The trust piloted this model through its own, smaller capacity-building program. As part of a three-year grant to the South River Federation, for example, the trust worked with the young organization to set goals for expanding its membership, developing a financial tracking system and launching its first fund- raising appeal.

“In one year, we tripled our membership,” said executive director Kincey Potter. “That translates into changes for the river because we now speak for more supporters when we approach the county or city government, and we’ve got more committed people who come out as volunteers.”

Potter says that the federation’s River Watchers program and annual watershed “snapshot”—a large-scale monitoring event conducted by volunteers—evolved from that improved organizational capacity.

The Capacity Building Initiative will also work with each applicant to analyze their needs and set appropriate operational goals. Over the course of the grant period, they will watch for program improvements, such as an increase in participants, better technical quality and the mapping of projects to a larger watershed plan.

Initiative supporters are hoping to see results like those reaped by the Friends of the Rappahannock, where the initial $50,000 ultimately triggered several waves of growth, bringing its current staff total to eight. The annual budget has grown from $45,000 in the mid-1990s to $320,000 today, including approximately $90,000 each year from the annual river fest.

The changes have dramatically improved the group’s ability to influence development.

“There were lots of missed opportunities until we could get ahead of the curve and start working proactively,” Tippett said. “In the reactive mode, we would find ourselves responding to individual development projects and trying to change certain aspects after the projects were on the table. In the proactive mode, we are helping to craft new ordinances before the projects are even conceived.”

For most organizations, making that leap is difficult. Often, funding—and the staff time it supports—is tied to specific projects such as planting a streamside buffer, creating rain gardens, installing a green roof or conducting a stream survey. They are invaluable for improving local watersheds, and often allow an organization to hire its first paid staff.

But without a slug of unrestricted money, the watershed group is unstable. If the project funds disappear, so may the staff. In other cases, Tippet said, “staff time is booked” with projects, and organizations can’t respond to issues that emerge.

They also have little opportunity to craft long-term strategies, because staff time is restricted to the projects at hand.

“Many of these groups are chasing project money because it’s what they have access to,” O’Neill said. “They don’t have the resources to step back and ask, what is the most effective role for us? Is it education and outreach? Restoration projects? Advocacy?”

The Capacity Building Initiative is designed to address issues like these by providing the right kind of help for different stages of organizational growth.

Some groups may be ready to undertake big changes, with large amounts of funding. Others may need time to choose goals and strategies, or receive more technical training. For others, the priority might be increasing membership or building a stronger board of directors.

Helping groups evaluate their needs and increase their independence are among the goals of the new initiative.

Support will be awarded in three categories.

The first includes grants of up to $100,000 for each of the three years, along with personalized and group training and networking opportunities.

The second level includes grants of up to $15,000 per year, with group training and networking opportunities.

The third offers free participation in group training and networking, with a long-term goal of moving groups to higher levels of assistance.

Over time, O’Neill would like to see the program help more watershed groups develop goals and strategies that are clearly tied to local needs, establish strong boards of directors and acquire a variety of resources for their programs.

He also hopes they’ll be talking to one another more, and making their presence felt in a regional context, through the creation of a Chesapeake Bay Watershed Network.

“A stronger network at the grass-roots level will help to improve local streams and rivers while advancing the Bay restoration,” O’Neill said.

“Ultimately, that’s what this program is designed to do.”

Grant applications are due in February to the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which is coordinating the program.

Information and application information will be posted on the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network web site as it becomes available. Visit and click on the link to the Funders Network, or call the Chesapeake Bay Trust at 410-974-2941.