What We're Thinking

Defining Capacity Building Around the World

Acknowledgement: Japan NPO Center

The OE Program at the Packard Foundation supports leaders, networks, and organizations around the world. From Ethiopia to China, and many countries in-between, we operate under the same theory of change – that organizations and networks with stronger leadership, management, and operations are better equipped to achieve their missions. However, just as language, culture, and institutional structures vary from country to country, so do the appropriate approaches to building capacity. While some countries and sectors are very familiar with capacity building due to investments made by USAID, multilaterals, and global philanthropy, in other places capacity building is a new concept.

We faced this challenge recently as we began work in Japan in partnership with our Seafood Markets colleagues. To support our conversations with our on-the-ground partners, we developed a Capacity Building Primer that used clear, translatable language to describe our theory and approach. With partnership from the Japan NPO Center, we finalized and circulated this primer as well as provided an introductory workshop to partners in Japan on capacity building.

Below you will find a selection of the text of the primer, which we hope provides a good introduction to capacity building concepts here and abroad. You can find the translated Japanese version here.

 What is Capacity Building?

Capacity building is broadly defined as an activity that helps organizations and networks, and the people within them, develop or refine skills, strategies, systems, and/or structures.

Why Capacity Building?

When a leader, project, network, or organization is successful, new projects and opportunities for growth emerge. But new opportunities may require new skills, additional resources, or changes to how a project or organization is currently operating. These challenges are normal and ongoing for all leaders and organizations and are not a sign of weakness, but often the result of healthy growth, risk taking, and adaptation. Capacity building helps to address these opportunities and a commitment to capacity building is a sign of strength in leaders and organizations.

Capacity building develops:

  • Strategy – such as program design, communications, fundraising, or evaluation
  • Operational strength– such as financial administration or human resources management
  • Leadership – such as leading oneself, leading an organization, leading a network, or leading a movement
  • Technical skills – such as gaining depth of knowledge in particular topic, i.e. sustainable fisheries management
  • Structures – such as a developing a new organizational design or business model
  • General capacity – capacity building can also refer to adding new capacity in the form of additional people or even teams that bring new skills and resources to an organization or network

Capacity building can take many forms, such as:

  • On or off-site training courses
  • Conference attendance
  • Hiring an expert or consultant to carry out a customized project to build capacity
  • Learning in a cohort or group with other leaders
  • Personalized coaching from an expert and/or mentorship
  • Partnerships or exchange programs between institutions to gain information or knowledge
  • Support to cover general capacity
  • If the field is lacking a certain skillset or function, support to launch or strengthen new institutions

The Packard Foundation’s Approach to Capacity Building

Capacity building is an important approach that is integrated into many of the Packard Foundation’s investments. In the Foundation’s work in the U.S. and internationally, building strong leaders, organizations, networks, and fields are key to achieving programmatic success. The Foundation invests in capacity building in multiple ways, including through the Organizational Effectiveness (OE) program, which David Packard began in 1983. The OE program believes that investing in organizational and network capacity leads to increased effectiveness, which in turn leads to better programmatic outcomes. In the last 15 years, the OE program has provided capacity building support to more than 1,000 organizations. Examples of our OE capacity building work can be found here.

What challenges have you faced when supporting capacity building work internationally? What concepts are easy to translate? Which are more challenging? What suggestions do you have on the introductory language above? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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