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Rethinking capacity building

capacitybuilders logoAs voluntary sector jargon goes, one of the most thoroughly-integrated tidbits of recent years must be the phrase that spawned its own New Labour quango: capacity building.

Through all of the criticisms Capacitybuilders (the quango) has faced, there has been some very good work they have supported (along with, I would argue, a significant share of waste).   Before setting-up Concrete Solutions, I worked for CB funding at two different organisations, whose interpretations of the phrase varied considerably from one-another.   As there are some indications that CB may be on the ConDem chopping block since the election, I felt it might be worth starting a bit of debate around the term, its value and some alternative ways of approaching it.

The problem with ‘capacity building’
My problem with the phrase is two-fold; firstly, I think a system that assumes deficits (the NEED to have capacity built) in those it exists to serve, will often miss out on the many assets those people or organisations may already have on offer, and could share more-widely, if given the chance.

Secondly (and maybe more fundamentally), is that the direction the capacity building agenda has tended to flow, follows some fairly traditional assumptions regarding money, power and what it means to be good at what you do.

…Let me put that in slightly less-abstract terms: organisations who DO the capacity building have, almost without exception, more money, stronger links to government and more uniform structures and processes than those whose capacity is built.   The implicit assumption here is that those who have succeeded by these traditional measures provide the model that the (broadly speaking) poorer, less-connected with power and more chaotic community groups should follow, if they to want to ‘succeed’.

Success?
So let’s unpick success a bit.   If you are a small youth organisation in Hackney working to support young people to leave gangs, is success getting to meet the Prime Minister, securing a multi-million pound government contract, creating spinoff projects across the country?   Maybe, maybe not… it may be that with just a little bit of money, some support from the right local leaders and your team’s commitment, you are able to make a huge difference in the lives of young people that live around you.  Focussing more widely than that may pull you from applying your skills and experience where they are most relevant and most needed.   The capacity building model often assumes that:

1. Growth is inherently good; and that growth means conforming to established institutional protocols;

2. Reciprocally, those established institutional protocols are good, because they facilitate organisational growth.

‘Bigger is Better’?
Though the ever-crude ‘bigger is better’ approach is rarely promoted in relation to community groups, its ethos is still ever-present in the assumption that bigger organisations should be ‘teaching’ smaller ones how to operate more like them.  I don’t want this to come-off as a blanket indictment of larger organisations, but given the dominance of the more institutional approach, feel a counterbalance may be useful.

So what makes big organisations ‘better’, if they are to be the templates smaller organisations should have their capacity built in the image of?   Well, they are (often) good at fundraising, HR processes, finance, marketing, evaluation (maybe not evaluation)… but something often gets lost as organisations have their capacities in each of these areas developed by the experts.  I’ve often heard this loss referred to as that of the organisation’s ‘soul’, but maybe less-melodramatically, could be seen as a loss of the organisation’s ability to see complex social problems through a complex lens, when their internal perspective has been confined by the often-inflexible systems they have been encouraged to build into the fabric of their organisation.  (Read this for a differentiation between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems).

The complicated systems of multi-year planning cycles, pre-determined organisational outcomes and number-based evaluation, don’t themselves have the capacity to shift fast enough to accommodate the ever-changing complex situations so many community groups face on a day-to-day basis. What makes the best community groups effective is often their ability to understand the many complex forces at play in their area and constantly make ad-hoc adjustments based-on ever-changing scenarios.  This flexibility is often made possible through less emphasis on planning and more on doing (and then doing differently, as often as is needed).

So what does this have to do with capacity building?
Effective capacity building can’t be a one-way process (as tends to be the case with the current model) – there must be an openness from larger organisations – traditionally those who ‘build capacity’ – to learn from the methods of those they are used to telling how things should be done.  The rhetoric of this is often hollowly embraced, but must be taken-on (when appropriate) without the knee-jerk response of ‘that only works because they are small – it would never apply to us’.

Formality and structure can be very useful at times, but can also be hugely limiting when applied as a default way of organising people around social issues.  If Capacitybuilders (the quango) want to survive the current and upcoming cuts, they might do well to look at some of the ways they could shift their approach to create honest learning spaces that would benefit both bigger and smaller groups, without assuming an inherent authority of one over the other.   Such an approach might even fit nicely into the still-cloudy ‘Big Society’ agenda and save a funding body well-placed to facilitate some much-needed co-learning across the voluntary and community sectors…


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Posted in flexibility and power and Uncategorized.

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.