Guiding Principles for Effective Capacity Building Help 1-of-4

Principle 1:  Support People & Groups in Finding Their Own Way

Excerpts from Helping Neighborhood Groups and Leaders Grow Stronger by David M. Scheie

Like muscles, capacities grow primarily through use.  The goal of community capacity building is to increase the community’s ability to solve problems and create an excellent quality of life.  The best way to foster a dynamic, self-renewing community is for more people and groups to exercise and develop their creative, problem-solving, relationship-building powers.  The primary strategy of capacity-building help, then, must be to help people invest in their own judgments and efforts more, so that they can learn most deeply and acquire experience most rapidly.

Friendly listening is the key way to live out this principle.  Those who would be helpful can act along a continuum from being a good listener, through asking questions, offering principles or frameworks, giving advice, and, at the far end, giving direction on what to do.  When the goal is helping groups and leaders find their own way, listening may be the crucial form of help.

Friendly listening happens through informal phone calls and visits:  dropping by to show interest, hear how things are going, and express encouragement.  It means returning calls promptly, and respecting invitations to attend celebrations and social events as seriously as invitations to speak or play official roles.

Friendly listening means not getting in the way of a group exercising its own problem-solving skills, and not getting in the way of a group taking responsibility for its own decisions and actions.  It means scrupulously avoiding voicing judgments or telling people what to do.  If asked to give an opinion or advice, one can respond; but always be explicit that it’s the group’s choice to act on this or not.

Learning through experience

Because people learn primarily by doing, assistance that is designed to facilitate leaders and groups learning through their own experience will be most effective.

Helping people and groups find their own way means not rushing to judgment on their decisions, and not pushing them to take on responsibilities they may not be interested in or ready for.  A neighborhood assistance program that wants to increase groups’ capacity to find their own way should be open to funding and assisting a broad range of projects and goals – whatever is identified through an authentic, broad-based group process as important and feasible.  They key is that the goals be locally generated.

At the heart of neighborhood capacity building, groups and residents must get better at developing their own vision, their own analysis, their own agenda – and at staying the course even when things get tough.  Growing stronger and smarter involves repeated cycles of theory, planning, practice and reflection.  It’s a process of getting a letter better each time, cutting down the mistakes, increasing the skills.  Affirming the importance of this, and creating or protecting space for this, is the first, crucial kind of help.

Therefore, patient support is critical to help groups and leaders get better at finding their own way.  Outside observers and would-be helpers must be patient as groups pursue their own ideas and find out for themselves how well their choices work.  This is why supportive relationships can be so helpful when they are long term:  because a long-term relationship includes space for giving groups “a good let-alone.”  Attention, presence, without direction or distracting:  this is the essence of this first principle.


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