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Conference Blog: Capacity Building for the Real World: Two Practical Frameworks from St. Louis

Friday, September 14, 2018   (0 Comments)
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Capacity Building for the Real World: A Framework and Applications from St. Louis

By Lisa Clancy, Karl Guenther, and John McClusky


Building Sector-Wide Capacity: The Challenge and Its Inherent Tensions

Like many members of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management, we’re passionate about building the capacity of the people and organizations that comprise the nonprofit sector as well as improving the process and practice of capacity building in and of itself. We know that working to improve an overall field of non-profit practice often means deploying a mix of intensive individual consulting and workshops with leaders and/or organizations. One-time workshops often don’t produce the kind of sticky-behavior change in organizations one would hope. From our experiences leading capacity building efforts for the subset of the nonprofit sector that is focused on community development and partnerships, many of which are grassroots efforts, we’ve seen that this traditional method is not feasible from a financial or staff time perspective. Additionally, trainings or other capacity building activities for networks or groups of individuals or organizations present their own set of challenges or tensions that must be carefully navigated. Capacity building initiatives have to balance the learning needs of the group with those of individuals, organizational with individual skill building, while simultaneously fostering the participants’ sustained engagement and focus with the feasibility of activities in terms of their financial or time commitment. When capacity building efforts are intentional about considering the unique needs of their stakeholders, we’ve seen the magic that can result.

 Change Science and Nonprofit Research

In St. Louis, the Community Builders Network (CBN) and Thread STL have structured and implemented their own approaches to building the capacity of each entity's unique set of stakeholders that represent organizations and various community partnerships and coalitions. In particular, these approaches attempt to resolve the challenges and tensions inherent in such broad scale, group based capacity building. Despite their unique approaches, they share a common set of characteristics and draw on shared principles that inform the development of their capacity building models. Each model:

  • Uses a multi-staged, long term process that begins with mutual discovery between those seeking to build their capacity and those seeking to enable or facilitate it
  • Supports the ability of those seeking to build their capacity to articulate their needs and aspirations through deep engagement in setting objectives and design
  • Includes an integrated ensemble of activities, opportunities and resources instead of “one off,” discrete, or separate elements.
  • Focuses on the current work of the participants and the immediate benefit of their capacity building activities to it
  • Takes into account the readiness, absorptive capacity, and context of the participants
  • Uses evaluation design and execution that takes into account the emergent nature of the capacity building process and employs process as well as outcome, formative as well as summative evaluation

These characteristics and principles emerged from the integration of social science, stakeholder engagement, and practitioner experience. They were distilled from extensive research on the regional and national landscape of nonprofit capacity building co-authored by one of our presenters, who has four decades of capacity building practice. The regional research primarily involved a series of in depth, structured interviews across a broad range of stakeholder groups, including executives of nonprofits representing all mission domains and organizational size, as well as leading capacity builders, funders, and intermediaries that play a capacity building role. The national research was primarily an extensive review of professional practice and scholarly literature, drawing on two primary sources. The first was scholarly articles on nonprofit capacity building from several of the most relevant disciplines, the second a plethora of practice articles, models, and tools from nonprofit and philanthropic intermediaries, associations, and consulting firms.

From Principles to Practice

Utilizing the insights from research, practitioner experience, and stakeholder input, CBN developed a capacity building approach called the "Ladder of Capacity Building." Key features include applied learning with tangible results: participants are asked to demonstrate their progress through a work product that they hone throughout the Ladder process. They are required to apply learning from one step before they move to the next, and each step provides access to more valuable opportunities, resources, and services. Each Ladder ends with a tangible capacity-building incentive, such as a modest grant or engagement of a consultant to complete the organization’s practical work plan. Another feature of the ladder is Real-Time Evaluation and Performance Management: Participants receive support and feedback from staff and peers throughout the Ladder process, enabling everyone to self-assess, track progress, and course-correct in real time as needed. Additionally, the ladder builds in Peer Learning and Support: participants engage in consulting sessions and peer-learning workshops as a cohort. This allows practitioners working on similar issues and/or landscapes to collaborate, support, and hold each other accountable as they move up the ladder toward their goals.

 Like CBN, Thread gathered important insights from research, experience, and stakeholder input to inform its structure and strategies as a Peer Learning Community for community partnership and coalition leaders in the St. Louis region. Thread members regularly get together for facilitated learning, reflection, and peer support.  Primary activities include several peer-learning methods, such as Case Study Roundtables, Learning Cohorts, and Coaching Circles.

Thread’s activities are member driven and directed. Members are surveyed several times throughout the calendar year in order to capture their practice needs and priorities. Survey results are then mapped to activities, and activities are launched only when there’s a critical mass of needs or priorities identified.  For example, there was recently a group of about a dozen Thread members who convened monthly for 5 months in a Learning Circle focused on Partnership and Coalition Evaluation.

In addition to the self-directed nature of Thread’s activities, there is also a focus on documentation and deliverables. For example, one outcome of the Learning Circles and Roundtables is the “Knowledge Brief.” The Knowledge Brief is aimed at documenting the group’s process and identifying resources and learning generated and shared. The Brief can then be shared with other partnership and coalition leaders throughout the region, as well as other interested stakeholders, in an effort to build common vocabulary and knowledge.  

Conference Session: What You will Learn and Do

At the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s 2018 Capacity Builders Conference, we’ll be presenting more on our approach to capacity building at our session, “Capacity Building for the Real World: A Practical Framework and Applications from St. Louis.” We’ll share our common set of characteristics and capacity building principles that guide the efforts of CBN and Thread. Participants will understand how these approaches compare to other leading capacity building frameworks and will be provided with templates and tools to engage with each other in small groups to design their own capacity building approach based on this framework and applications. Participants will share their preliminary designs, receive feedback from peers, and leave with the beginning of a plan to shape within their own practice contexts.