What is Capacity Building?

Capacity building is the process of evaluating a party’s ability to achieve their goals and solve issues that arise in their day-to-day operations.  Capacity building also evaluates the party’s ability to expand its operations and capacity to achieve more of its goals in the future.  Several broad types of capacity can be built as broad categories, but capacity can be built in all areas of a party’s mission.  Capacity can be built through study and analysis or a variety of other activities.  Capacity building can bring life and excitement back into a party’s mission, along with a host of other benefits.

This article will explore the concept of capacity building by defining the process and explaining some areas that may benefit from capacity-building activities.  Then it will look at how a team may build capacity and look at a variety of actives that may be used to increase the ability to achieve their goals.  Finally, this article will examine the benefits that capacity building can bring to a party or organization and how these benefits continue to encourage more capacity.

Defining Capacity Building

Capacity building is a variety of activities and actions that increase an organization’s or party’s ability to set and achieve goals and solve conflicts that arise.  When referring to capacity building on an organizational level, it is activities that increase the organization’s capacity to achieve its mission or objective, and it involves an examination and encouragement of organizational management, governance, and commitment to meet that mission or objective.  When a party engages in capacity-building activities, they are seeking to grow their management and governance, staff capacity, and organizational infrastructure.  The capacity building aims to encourage growth both in the present moment and in the future.

One sector that has a strong focus on capacity building is nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  Because many of these organizations begin with an idea to serve or help a group, the capacity of the organization is not at the forefront of the founder’s thought process.  However, once nonprofits and NGOs settle into their field, they will often need to evaluate their capacity to better serve the cause and mission.  This helps them serve more people effectively and helps avoid staff burnout and stress as the organization grows.  Capacity contributes to the sustainability of the organization.

While nonprofits are often the focus of capacity building, they can be used in a variety of contexts.  Capacity building aims to help people from different walks of life strengthen their ability to collaborate and provides skills and tools to help the parties approach conflict resolution and issues effectively.   However, to effectively evaluate the capacity of an organization or society, the fundamental human needs must be met.  Without a basic infrastructure or fundamental needs, different organizations, institutions, and governments will not be able to effectively fight the issues that face society.  It covers all levels of development including institutional, community, and economic development.

Areas to Build Capacity

When thinking about increasing a party or organization’s ability to set and achieve goals and carry out its mission, there are some key areas where there may be room for improvement.  These areas may be broad, such as political and developmental capacity, or they may focus on a specific area that could use improvement, such as conflict resolution or expertise on a given subject. While not exhaustive, this list provides some areas that may be considered when looking for capacity building.

  • Skills: While this may seem like a broad category, it begins this list because it is one of the few things that a party or organization can control purely inwardly.  And each person within an organization can develop their capacity in skills and education.  Building capacity in skill and education looks at where each person that is contributing to the mission is at and what they could gain more skill in.  This can include organization-wide training or role-specific education.
  • Resources: This area is primarily focused on the resources within the organization and how they can be built up within the organization or for a person.  To build capacity in resources, the party needs to be healthy in other areas so that they can grow without straining their resources.  Building capacity in resources can mean gathering more of the resources that the party uses to complete their mission of investing in assets that can assist in accomplishing goals in the future.  It can also refer to an audit of the ways that resources are used to ensure that they are being used to their full capacity and effectively.
  • Infrastructure: Infrastructure looks at the structure, protocols, and processes that govern the party to create a system that helps keep everyone focused on the goals that the party has.  It can shift the process of production to help create efficiency or change protocols that are unnecessarily holding members of the party back from achieving all that they can.  Finally, this includes an examination of the structure of power in an organization to evaluate whether any extra steps do not need to be present to approve or create processes.
  • Relational: This capacity area applies primarily to multi-person parties.  Building relational capacity means that the party looks at the ways that people within the organization treat each other and how that affects their ability to accomplish the goals set out of them.  It can mean encouraging parties to work together or keep people that need to be separated to not be put on a team.  It also will assess if certain people cause friction that stops progress and how to address that.
  • Values: Values refer to the values that the organization holds and how the culture of the organization reflects those values.  Does the way that the organization conducts itself encourage everyone within the organization to uphold those values, or does it distract from those values? Encouraging capacity in achieving and supporting values will likely encourage further ideas in the organization.
  • Conflict Resolution: Building capacity in conflict resolution encourages an organization to address and overcome conflict more effectively to keep the party on track.  This may mean implementing new methods of dispute resolution to use when a conflict arises, or it may mean reworking the processes already in place to make them more efficient and effective.
  • Engagement: Capacity in engagement looks at an organization or party’s ability to engage with partners or people outside of the organization and how those connections can influence and encourage the mission of the organization.  This may mean that the organization needs to focus on relationships outside the organization and developing them to help with their goals.  It can also mean that an organization needs to evaluate and shift its focus on certain partners because the focus is skewed based on the ability or outcome of the relationship.  It can help an organization focus its outreach effectively.
  • Political: Political capacity refers to the ability of people to make decisions and affect change in the sphere around them.  This may mean empowering people within the organization to make decisions and assert influence over their peers, or it may mean that the party focuses on engagement with people outside the organization to influence.
  • Developmental: Developmental capacity is the ability of the organization to develop its goals and move them toward completion.  If an organization is focused only on the current projects and is not developing new ideas, it may become stagnant. By encouraging capacity in development, a party can keep expanding and growing as they continue to move forward, accomplish their goals, and solve problems effectively.

The Elements of Capacity Building:

While there are often many areas where capacity could be improved in an organization or for a party, it may not always be clear how to move forward in their capacity building and growth.  However, regardless of which area of capacity an organization is focusing on, or even if they are seeking to build capacity throughout the whole structure of the organization, several ideas and elements can help create a healthy and effective capacity-building experience.  These are especially important when an organization is engaged in work to create capacity in communities and populations that they serve.  These elements come from case studies done by Community Wealth Partners that evaluated the effectiveness of capacity-building activities for nonprofits and found some commonalities among the nonprofits that succeeded in building capacity through these activities.  These five elements serve as a guide for parties seeking to build their capacity effectively.

  1. Long-Term Commitment: Creating a solution and addressing complex issues is not something that will happen immediately, regardless of how many resources are available.  When parties are seeking to build capacity to engage with more complex and difficult problems, they must commit to continuing to invest for the long term.  Investing in solutions that will continue to work to address the issue will help build capacity as needed.  To continue to be successful, an organization must keep assessing its health.
  2. Co-create with Stakeholders: When a foundation or organization sees a problem and comes in to try and solve it, they can become paternalistic and can create more harm for the populations and communities that they are trying to serve.  Instead, Community Wealth Partners’ case studies identified that lasting change and capacity were found most when the organizations and foundations engaged with the populations that they were serving and created solutions together.  This builds trust and helps create a working relationship where all parties are ready to contribute fully and invest.
  3. Strengthen the Ecosystem: One of the best things that an organization can do to build capacity is to create a network or “ecosystem” of diverse support. This allows the organization to grow and change and continuously have vendors or providers, including technology and consultants.  This also allows people within an ecosystem for one organization to connect with each other and grants an even larger and more robust network.  By continuing to build a network, the organization will increase its capacity.
  4. Support Both Technical and adaptive capacities: Capacity can be divided into two categories of capacity: (1) adaptive and (2) technical.  Adaptive capacity is the ability of the organization and its members to relate to one another and the problems that they face.  This would include skills like collaboration, influence, and leadership.  Technical capacity is the ability to do specific skills to accomplish the task, such as fundraising, marketing, and staffing.  When organizations are working at their best, they are using an adequate and balanced blend of both technical and adaptive capacities.
  5. Ground Capacity Building in Equity: For a capacity building to be worthwhile and bring change to communities and organizations, it needs to be grounded in equity.  This means meeting each organization or person where they are at and providing them with the tools that they need to succeed.  Decisions of how to fund or invest in an organization cannot be based on what was given to another organization, but instead needs to focus on the individual needs of the organization and the populations they are looking to strengthen.  By laying the foundation for equity in the preceding steps, an organization will have the ability to choose equity and help create equitable outcomes across the sphere of influence.

Acknowledging and keeping these elements at the forefront when engaging in capacity building will help strengthen partnerships and achieve the results that organizations and foundations are seeking.

Capacity-Building Exercises

Once a party understands what capacity building is, the areas that capacity can be achieved, and the elements of successful capacity building, they may begin to engage in capacity-building exercises or activities.  Capacity-building activities are those that enable a party to better accomplish their task or job.  These activities can either help a team broaden the scope of their work to serve more people or to serve the people that they are already working with effectively.  This helps create an organization that is running effectively and creates a positive outcome for the people or environments they serve.  Some examples of activities that may be useful are:

  • Leadership Development: Leadership is important to an organization’s mission and goals.  It is near impossible to accomplish tasks without proper and solid leadership.  Leadership does not just mean the folks at the very top making the larger decisions for the organization, but also includes the leaders at all levels of the organization who are contributing to the overall mission.  This can mean investing in training and skill-building for current leaders, but it should also include developing people who will become strong and confident leaders in the future.  By investing in leadership, an organization will be bound to achieve more.
  • Training: One of the simplest ways to build capacity is to train members of the organization with new skills. This can mean individualized training based on a person’s role or can be training for the whole organization on norms and policies.  Creating spaces for people to expand their skill set will help encourage capacity and development even outside of training situations.
  • Experts: One thing an organization can do to increase capacity in a given area is to hire someone with expertise in that area. By hiring and onboarding an expertly skilled person, the organization has increased leadership and capacity in that area and may be able to train others based on their expertise.  This can also include asking for help from volunteers with expertise.
  • Mentoring: One of the most effective ways to maintain or increase capacity is to encourage mentoring partnerships between recruits and experienced members of the community.  This allows both sides to learn new skills and abilities from the other and allows both sides to teach a skill.  It provides retention because recruits can feel prepared for the future.  If an organization is serving a marginalized community, it is also important for people in the organization to be mentored by members of that organization to allow the organization to serve in a way that is fully aware of the challenges faced and the specific needs of the community.
  • Team Learning: This practice refers to the process of placing people with a commonality together and encouraging them to learn from one another.  This is most effective when everyone in the group shares a common goal, for example, a fundraising team, and when there is established trust among the members. This allows team members to increase their capacity in their roles as they learn new ways to do things and how to effectively challenge the team to do better.
  • Lobbying: To create lasting and systemic change, an organization can build a lobbying practice with local lawmakers.  Building this community and capacity allows the organization to create systemic change through laws that last. If a campaign is strong and visible, it can challenge social norms.
  • Collaboration: Another activity that can encourage capacity is collaborative efforts with other organizations and people.  Doing so builds a network that can allow a party to take on tasks that they would normally shy away from because they can outsource portions.  It also increases the footprint of the organization in the community and influences the community’s perceptions of the organization.
  • Public Presence: Another way that an organization can build capacity is to participate in activities that increase public awareness of the issue or even of the organization’s mission.  Doing so will increase the resources and the volunteer power that is poured into the organization.  It will also encourage people to find organizations that are working to eliminate issues that communities are facing and may bring resources to partner organizations as well.
  • IT Capacity: Occasionally, using or creating a new IT system or process may cut out some of the busy work from the members and employees of the organization and will enable the organization to work more effectively.

This is not an exhaustive list and there are many more activities that can be used to increase a party’s capacity.  Taking part in activities like these will help an organization invest in both their present and their future while learning from their past.

Benefits of Capacity Building

Creating and building capacity can bring many benefits beyond just increased capacity.  The activities that build up capacity will also influence other areas of growth in the organization’s work.  Many of these benefits can be pulled from the activities listed above, such as increased external commitment to the cause, new skills and mastery of old skills, more resources to complete the work, and confidence in the mission of the organization.  Capacity building also helps organizations create a sense of empowerment within their ranks as members take steps to accomplish bigger and wider goals.  It can also help encourage an organization to be independent and not need to hire experts every time they address a certain issue.  Finally, due to the push to include organizers and workers from within the community that the organization seeks to serve, capacity building often leads to a feasible solution that is sensitive to the specific needs of the community and adds reciprocity to the process.

Conclusion

Capacity building is a worthwhile step for organizations, particularly those in the nonprofit sector who are seeking to aid a community or group with their work.  It encourages the organization to take stock of where tasks are going well and where there are issues with production and conflict.  Capacity-building may aid an organization in a variety of areas and encourages the use of certain activities of capacity building within those areas.  The activities can be individual, team-based, organization-wide, or outreach activities that strengthen an organization’s ability to accomplish goals and solve problems.  Doing work in these areas help an organization grow in their skills, resources, political influence, and footprint.  The capacity building gives organizations and nonprofits the ability to push harder toward their mission and create lasting change, and doing so invests in the future of the company for generations to come.   

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