Thriving People and Organizations Create Flourishing Societies

The bullet point about “capacity development” in the job description and the catchphrase on the development organizations web-site are both deceptive. It looks simple. Developing people’s professional skills and increasing the ability of organizations is not simple. Power, culture, and diversity of vision all collide when people try to “develop capacity”. Here are six observations I’ve had about the fun (and complex) world of “capacity development”.

1) Developing People is not like building a houses: A+B does not always = C.

Years ago Paulo Freire gave us the image of the “banking” vs. “problem posing” education. The banking system see’s people as containers. Deposited then withdrawn, knowledge is like money. The problem is people are not containers. How people learn is as important as what is learned. People are not like banks. You can’t deposit the technical approach and withdrawal when the need arises. Viewing the development of people’s capacity in a linear process does not work. People grow as they engage their world, solve real problems, create positive futures, and become a part of creating their reality.

2) Lead towards being told “NO” (which will create a long-term “YES”).

A career high point was being told “No”. I had worked in the Philippines with a community group that wanted to become a Civil Society organization. After four years of being an organization they had worked hard and made substantial change in various communities. They had structure, vision, financial systems, multiple donors and a great CEO. I represented one of the initial donors. We had a substantial relationship. Four years into the partnership we met to talk about the places our annual business plans overlap. I had proposed their organization do a project that our organization would help fund. The CEO told me he did not feel it fit with their direction and overall vision. This should not be a big deal. However, in the relationship between donor and local NGO turning down funding is a big deal. It might sound strange but the CEO telling me “No” was one of my career high points. The CEO made this decision not based solely on money or relationship. Rather, he was deciding based on vision, purpose, capacity, relationship, and money. Lead towards the “no”, which creates a long-term “yes”.

3) Team, not counterpart.

Many organizations use the idea of “counterparts”. The counterpart system limits potential. Working with leadership teams is a better way to develop people. This widens development of capacity by the team exchanging ideas and increasing knowledge. Further, leaders will emerge from within the group. The leadership that emerges can be perfect for the transition of international staff.

4) Professional Development vs. Capacity Development.

Why do we use “capacity development” when referring to local staff and “professional development” when referring to international staff? These differences may seem overly nuanced. However, I suspect the difference in terms reinforce the power differential between local and expat staff. Local staff are experts and the strength of any organization. Using the same phrase (for both international and local staff) can be another step towards equalizing power. Even small nuances – our use of words – can make a substantial difference.

5) Walk away: on purpose.

Create clarity with your actions not only your words. Early in my development career I worked as a community organizer in a rural American community. Through the use of participatory tools the community decided to develop a community garden. The city government had funded the high quality soil. Seeds had been purchased by a local NGO. Irrigation pipes and tools were donated by local businesses. I showed up on the day we had agreed to start building. Although there had been high interest voiced I was the only one who came! Rather than starting the garden, I walked away and came back later. Walking away communicated if the people in the community did not build the garden it would not get done. After seeing I was not going to build the garden myself people realized they needed to jump in. Managing to create sustainable organizations and projects means knowing when to step in and when to step out. Your absence creates space that others fill. Know when to be intentionally absent and purposefully present.

6) Measure growth in terms of sustainability, development of people’s capabilities, and finances: not finances only.

What we measure shows what we value. Measuring success primarily as financial growth gears organizations towards that end. For organizations with a people focused end finances are important, but are not the end goal. Organizations can grow while the people that run and benefit from them shrivel. When social organizations measure success firstly by financial growth often to succeed leaders push for financial growth above all else. This has negative results. If we shift focus on what we measure we will increase capacity in sustainable ways. Organizational financial growth does not necessarily translate to organizational or individual capacity. The measurement of the development of people’s capabilities (both in communities and in organizations) should be more important then the measurement of financial growth. As Amartya Sen clearly articulates: Money is the means, people and their development is the ends. We need to measure the ends.

As always this list of six is not exhaustive. I would love to hear your agreements, disagreements, and thoughts.

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