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Building Capacity Now for Sustainability in the Future

Anyone associated with the nonprofit world today is hearing the current buzzwords Capacity Building and Sustainability. So what do they mean? According to the National Council of Nonprofits, “capacity building is an investment in the effectiveness and future sustainability of a nonprofit….capacity building is not a one-time effort to improve short-term effectiveness, but a continuous improvement strategy toward the creation of a sustainable and effective organization.” Sustainability, according to, is the “ability to maintain or support an activity or process over the long term.” In other words, successful capacity building efforts now for a sustainable, effective organization in the future.

Wapello County 4-H Exposition, Inc., is a great story of capacity building and sustainability. From the nonprofit’s inception in 1997, the group was thinking long term: to build, grow and support the Wapello County 4-H program. Since splitting from the Wapello County Fair in 1998, the 4-H Expo has had 2 sites, in the city park (1998-2006) and then at the Bridge View Center. Each site presented its own set of challenges including significant labor to set up and tear down short term structures, rental cost and the concern that an air-conditioned venue like BVC did not provide a “real” fair experience.  But the Expo board was not deterred from their objective to make the 4-H Expo a community event. They continued seeking partnerships, raising money and putting together a strategic plan for their future. In essence, building the capacity of their organization.

In October, 2015, the Wapello County Supervisors put the County Home up for sale and the Wapello County 4-H Exposition board saw an opportunity to fulfill their dream of a permanent home. Taking ownership of a 90 year old building is a huge risk. The empty building had sustained extensive water damage and vandalism but the 4-H Expo Board, along with countless volunteers, were willing to take up the challenge. Having a spacious, permanent home for the 4-H Expo, with room to grow, is worth every drop of sweat equity that it took to clear the weeds and brush, replace broken doors and windows, scrub the floors and apply 60 gallons of fresh paint to the interior.

Even though the deed did not officially transfer from the county to the 4-H Exposition for almost 2 years, the group faithfully moved forward with necessary repairs and renovations while continually seeking opportunities to achieve their goals with minimal finances. According the Duane Bass, Expo Board member, “…they are a very dedicated, resourceful and skilled group of volunteers.”

The Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation (ORLF) assisted with the purchase of 5 acres of land contiguous to the building that would provide space for a horse arena and livestock buildings. Once again being resourceful, the Expo Board obtained a 24’ x 36’ Morton building from the Good Samaritan Society for the cost of moving it. They were given 15 sets of bleachers that were being replaced in the Schaffer Stadium renovation which volunteers dismantled and moved. The Bob Stewart riding arena was relocated from the Ottumwa Park by 4-H volunteers. Local businesses, including South Ottumwa Savings Bank, ITC, Farm Credit Services and private donations provided for the purchase of a 60’ x 60’ pole barn.  A local restaurant demolition project provided a large commercial air conditioning unit that will cool the gymnasium. A grant from Alliant Energy was received to install a new camera and security system and a final grant from ORLF this fall will update 138 light fixtures to energy efficient LED fixtures which provide significant cost savings on electricity and qualify the Expo Board for an Alliant Energy rebate.

One might wonder how all of this will be sustained; sustainability was also part of the master plan. Most of the building is leased to Iowa State University Extension which provides a regular, fixed source of income. The spacious building has also been rented out for weddings and conference space to local businesses and the 4-H program just completed a very successful Halloween fundraiser. Over 3000 people went through their haunted house and they have started work on an Enchanted Forest for an open house event in December.

So what’s next on their master plan? The Expo Board is looking to meet the needs of their fastest growing program, 4-H Shooting sports. They have submitted a grant to the National Rifle Association to purchase an indoor shooting range, as well as, add an outdoor shooting range for archery and trap.

For more information about 4H events, visit their Facebook page.