Author’s note: I hope that this blog finds you and your loved ones safe and relatively well. I originally wrote this post before both the COVID-19 pandemic and the uprising of the important movement to address and put an end to harmful systemic racism. Although I feel in many ways uncomfortable posting something “off-topic,” I’ve watched the capacity gaps and barriers that this study uncovered last fall morph into not just struggles, but into make-or-break points for so many organizations. As wildfire season and economic fragility at both the individual employee and organizational-level all converge, the results of this study are a powerful tool as we look to (re)invest in community wildfire groups, and to encourage state, federal, and foundations to do the same. I hope that the following information adds value to your work. – Allison Jolley

Community-based work teaches us all an important lesson: Don’t decide what people need. Ask them. Rarely though, is there funding to do things in that order. Fortunately, the Watershed Research and Training Center (the Watershed Center)’s Regional Forest and Fire Capacity grant is one of those times.

The Skinny: Last summer, the Watershed Center engaged Dr. Emily Jane Davis of Oregon State University to assess entities active in forest and/or fire management in California. Nick Goulette, Dr. Davis and I designed and then administered an online survey between September – October 2019. I like to joke that our main finding was that “Everyone wants every capacity.” It’s true, interest in building numerous capacities was high, yet still several distinct patterns emerged that practitioners, agencies and funders alike can all learn from, regardless of where they themselves live and work.

What We Asked and Who We Heard From

We received a total of 227 usable responses. (Only one response per entity was allowed, and respondents were encouraged to collaborate with their colleagues as needed.) Despite casting a statewide net, two-thirds of all responses to the assessment came from the Sierras, Cascades, northern Coast Ranges, and Klamath-Siskiyou areas; and the assessment findings as a whole should be considered in that light. No one entity type dominated the respondent type- there was a good mix. Respondents included fire safe councils (19 percent), nonprofits (18 percent), resource conservation districts (15 percent), Firewise ® USA Site (12 percent), as well as collaborative groups, tribes, county governments, businesses, fire departments/districts, unincorporated community groups, municipal governments, and watershed councils (all of which were less than 10 percent of the total respondents).

Respondent-entity-pie chart

We asked these entities about 57 different capacities that we identified as related to forest and fire management. Each capacity fit into one of seven overarching capacity categories:

  1. Monitoring
  2. Planning
  3. Collaboration and partnerships
  4. Outreach
  5. Implementation
  6. Cultural fire
  7. Organizational

We also asked questions about their organization overall, including current barriers to their forest and fire work, as well as their strengths, weaknesses, partnerships, and more.

The findings of each capacity category are detailed in the report itself (Pages 28-50).

Investment Opportunities:  In their own way, each capacity need could be seen as an investment opportunity for funders and those with a vested interest in the mission or purpose of a given entity. (It’s also worth noting that we asked who is currently investing – The funding source that was most commonly identified as a “major source of support” was state grants or agreements; half of respondents chose this response. Other top major sources of support were federal grants or agreements and volunteer labor. See page 25 of the report for details.)

The assessment also revealed substantial and diverse needs for capacity building, specifically regarding more funding for forest and/or fire management capacities. The financial and staffing capacity of these entities alone was striking: with just a median staff size of four, 42% of the entities that responded are operating with annual budgets of less than $100,000 a year. These organizations are in need of some serious baseline capacity and funding.


Another distinct result that emerged is the nine out of ten entities reported having no implementation capacities. This is an important piece of information as state and federal agencies increasingly expect more project management and implementation from local and regional partners.

Notably, a lack of specific and dedicated funding in support of capacity building for forest and/ or fire management was the top barrier that respondents identified in their work. Specifics around barriers can be found in pages 26-27 of the report, but are also summarized in the word cloud below.

word cloud most common selected barriers

The capacity needs are likely even more extensive than articulated in these data, as the assessment may not have adequately captured perspectives from some areas of California. The RFFC program is unlikely to be able to meet all of these needs.

Continued and deliberate investment could include:

  1. More regional or statewide capacity building programs akin to the Sierra Nevada Conservancy’s Watershed Improvement Program, which links investments in organizations and partnerships across planning, implementation, economic development, and adaptive management, supported through a regional intermediary who also provides direct technical assistance and peer learning opportunities;
  2. Expanded investment in the Watershed Coordinators grant program, which provides flexible funding for coordination among partners, project planning and fundraising for projects implementation;
  3. Expanded flexibility in existing grant programs to more explicitly fund capacity building functions such as participation in training, coordination and partnership development, and planning (this is a growing feature in CAL FIRE’s Forest Health and Fire Prevention Grants programs);
  4. Focusing at least some funding on dedicated non-competitive block grants to local groups (perhaps tribes, RCDs, fire safe councils, or specified watershed or county-based NGOs) for baseline operational capacities and serving in their coordination and planning roles, similar to capacity granting programs from Oregon’s Watershed Enhancement Board, for example; and
  5. Fully funding administrative/indirect costs in grant programs to ensure that local organizations, tribes, and others are able to grow and sustain administrative systems essential to high performance and accountability. A state-administered negotiated indirect costs rate system (akin to the system federal agencies use for cooperative agreements) could ensure that the goals of leveraging non-state funding and ensuring partners are not inflating costs are still achieved. A modified approach to match requirements could also address equity issues.

So where do we go from here? I’ve outlined five different approaches below that should be considered as entities consider ways to put the cart *after* the horse whether you’re working on veg management in California, building capacity in Colorado, or investing in capacity in Virginia.

Thinking Strategically About the Scope and Scale of Capacity Building

The scope and scale of these needs suggests the importance of being strategic in leveraging investments. This could include:

  1. Seeking stronger synergy among the many programs that state agencies are deploying to ensure a set of leveraged outcomes that help organizations and partnerships grow and sustain capacity.
  2. Expanding the use of cooperative agreement authority for state agencies. CAL FIRE, in particular, would be a suitable match given their local staffing—with complementary goals and capacities—to facilitate more deliberate investment in building the capacity of local organizations to be qualified and capable partners. This approach has been used by the U.S. Forest Service, e.g., through participating agreement authorities, to deliver resources through local nonprofits and other entities while fostering mutual goals and objectives.
  3. Allowing non-competitive funding allocation where mutual benefits exist facilitates capacity building and partnership development. As with grants, reimbursements of actual costs and indirect rates protects against wasteful spending, and matching requirements ensure investments are leveraged to expand impacts of the state investment, yet these approaches can be burdensome.

Scaling Our Forest and Fire Management Work

Assessment responses revealed a continued interest in building capacity for forest and/or fire management work at smaller scales such as neighborhoods and communities. These activities include defensible space, roadside clearing, landowner outreach, and volunteer engagement. This in part reflects the continued and increased needs of fire safe councils, which were 19 percent of the survey population.

As the focus of funding increasingly seems to be geared towards regional entities, it’s important to continue to invest locally as well to ensure that there are building blocks in place for work to successfully scale from the local level to larger regional and state-wide strategies.

There is strong interest in receiving capacity assistance from peers, and there appears to be a broad base of skilled entities in California that could serve as peer teachers, mentors, or sources of examples.

Before Building, Take Stock

Regardless of where you work or what slice(s) of the FAC “pie” you work on, you’re likely trying to build some type of capacity within your entity or within your community. In our experience, entities cannot (and should not) rely solely on external entities to build their own internal capacity. Capacity building is an iterative process, rarely funded directly.

Practitioners interested in building their capacity should consider how they can best leverage existing capacities in a way that is sustainable, impactful, and mindful of the overall “ecosystem” in which they operate (i.e., what partners, and potential partners do/need/have etc.) A few critical questions you should consider asking within your organization, entity, or larger network are:

  • What are we doing well right now that we could build on?
  • What are our partners doing well that we collectively could build on? What can we do together that we can’t do alone?
  • What could we accomplish with more capacity?
  • Which of those things complements our strategic plan?
  • Do we have a strategic plan? What needs to be in a strategic plan to help us make better decisions?
  • What capacities would be too much to handle right now? What capacities would also introduce heightened or new risks? Are those risks worth it? Can they be mitigated?

How Should Ripeness and Equity be Considered in Investment Decisions?

FACs are all about partnerships. Who you partner with may or may not involve financial transactions, such as subawards, but if they do, some of our conclusions may pertain to how you make partnership decisions. Entities that are healthy are more likely to provide a return on investment. Organizational health may include organizational qualities such as sufficient and qualified staff, the use of best practices, necessary financial and administrative systems, accountability, and adaptability.

Although ripeness and likelihood of success are a common factor in capacity decisions, equity is another important consideration. A “track record” of being able to take on similar or comparable activities affect the likelihood of success, and equity plays a big part of this process. This would be evidenced through validation of factors such as an entity’s current legal status, alignment of current budget and staff with programs, and evidence of past performance. Entities with a track record may find it easier to further attract funds and support, as they are viewed as proven. Many funders are seeking to invest in entities, communities, or areas in order to facilitate specific desired outcomes, and they are seeking the “best bets,” or investments that seem most likely to produce their desired outcomes. There also may be limited funding or programming dedicated to creating new efforts or building new capacities. Therefore, there may be entities at earlier stages of organizational development or in otherwise marginalized positions that may not appear “ripe” for investment yet warrant it. Continued lack of investment inhibits their access to opportunities for growth. If capacity investments are made with equity in mind, rationales should include historical inequity of investment and underserved community or population status. Realistic expectations and desired outcomes from early-stage investments should also be established accordingly.

Additional considerations and recommendations can be found in Pages 50-67 of the report.

What does this ultimately mean for Fire Adapted Communities?

I suspect that what we discovered about capacity needs translates in some ways to your community, and not in others. For instance, I would imagine entities working prescribed fire in Florida possess much more prescribed fire capacities. And I suspect state funding streams impact local capacities differently. Still, how we conceptualize, examine, and build capacity likely applies to your setting in two ways:

  1. The more specific you can be about your capacity needs and assets the better. Again, we identified 57 types of capacity related to the vegetation management aspect of FAC alone. If you want capacity funding, it will likely be helpful to articulate what you mean by capacity. Otherwise, you might get something that you’re not ready for, or don’t have the “capacity” to utilize. Cross-eyed yet?
  2. Context, including in relation to other entities, matters. Organizational ecosystems, current assets, ripeness and equity all relate to capacity building.

As issues of community preparedness and resilience become increasingly important, it is important to think through what exactly you need, and in relation to your partners, in order to accomplish more. Knowing what you need doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it, but if you can’t articulate your needs, that probably guarantees you’ll either be stuck with your cart before your horse, or no cart or horse at all.

Visit the Watershed Center’s state programs webpage to download the full report: Investment Opportunities for Increasing Forest and Fire Management Capacity in California: A Capacity and Needs Assessment of Local Groups, Nonprofits and Tribes 

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