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

Principle 4:  Focus on the Three Related Circles of Organizations, Individuals, and Broader Networks

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

The vitality of a community flows from dense networks of associations and relationships more than from the effectiveness of a single organization.  It’s important to recognize the fluidity and dynamic interplay between these three levels or circles of persons, single groups, and broader coalitions and networks.

A neighborhood organization’s effectiveness depends on the skills and energies of the people involved, and on the broader networks and partnerships of which the organization is part.  Coalitions and networks, too, depend on the strength and skill of member organizations and the individuals who are active.  Individuals, in turn, learn, draw support from, are held accountable by, and exert influence through the organizations and networks of which they are a part.

Nurturing stronger neighborhood organizations means working with the people who are active n the organization.  An organizational development strategy will inevitably be a human development or leadership development strategy.

Conversely, leadership development efforts must always be cognizant of the organizations and networks in which “leaders” are active.  Individuals’ effectiveness depends not only on their personal vision, skills and level of activity, but on their ability to mobilize and stay informed by and accountable to their community colleagues.  Perhaps the most common failing of conventional leadership development programs is their inattention to the groups and networks in which participants are already embedded.

Paying attention to the broader web of relationships in which each neighborhood organization or leader is embedded will also help those groups and leaders grow stronger.  This is true for several reasons.

  • An organization’s relationships are key assets, a key source of power.  This is what leverage is all about.  A primary way in which neighborhood groups achieve changes in their neighborhood is through calling in other organizations or individuals that can contribute to the situation.
  • External relationships are key channels for information and inspiration.  One of the easiest, most direct ways that neighborhood groups and leaders learn and renew their motivation is through contact with peers.
  • Connecting with other groups is empowering.  Dialogue with others whose circumstances and values mirror one’s own is the breeding ground for shared vision and joint action.  Finding others who will make common cause with you catalyzes greater courage and bolder strategies.

The premise of a capacity-building focus on organizational capacity and organizational goal achievement is that only organizations can amass the power and capacity to achieve meaningful impact on community problems and goals.  Furthermore, institutions are generally more durable than individuals.  A healthy institution can weather the temporary or permanent loss of individuals, so that the work moves forward even if certain individuals drop out or scale back their involvement.  However, since a group’s effectiveness depends on active, effective individuals, failure to make sure that participation is meaningful and satisfying to individuals will mean loss of organizational capacity as individuals drop away.

The premise of a focus on building individuals’ capacity then, is that a group is only as strong and active as the people in it, and as individual leaders and members grow stronger, the organizations of which they’re a part will become more capable.

A common flaw of individual-oriented “leadership development” programs, however, is that they tend to life or tear people of out of their home context.  Participants are pulled away from the original community relationships that were the basis of their knowledge, perspective, authority and influence.  Excessive emphasis on individuals’ vision, ambition and importance without commensurate attention to staying meaningfully embedded in their home relationships can cause local communication, support and accountability to wither – thereby eroding their capacity as spokespeople, problem-solvers, group-builders.

Here are some ways these dual concerns can be addressed:

  • Encourage people to come with a buddy or small group from their organization when they attend trainings, conferences, and other events.  Offering discounted fees for multiple representatives, or even a lower overall fee for an organization that sends multiple people, would express this in practical terms.
  • Continuously identify and deal with individuals’ self-interest, and their organizations’ and communities self-interest, and the connections and tensions between these three.
  • Encourage projects and activities that address the goals and self-interests of both individuals, organizations and communities.  This can be reflected in criteria for awarding grants and other assistance, for example.
  • When in a consulting or training relationship, include at least some activities or exercises that can only be carried out in groups, so that people continue to build relationships through experience and interdependence.

Workshops and events that bring together people from multiple groups and neighborhoods can strengthen capacity on all three levels of individuals, organizations and broader networks.  Ideally these gatherings will allow for relationship-building among those present, as well as skill development, information delivery and other functions.


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