Organizations that work in organizational and leadership development (aka capacity building) not only support the nonprofit sector, but shape it. How they do so matters. That is why capacity builders need to take a stand. We have power. And we’re uncomfortable with it.
For too long, many in the capacity-building field have pretended to engage in neutral skill-building work, but such neutrality is a myth that is no longer tenable. Those who seek to “build the capacity” of nonprofit organizations must reflect critically on who is being served and toward what ends. Their work must be grounded in values of social justice. This requires imagination because, as Octavia E. Butler said, “There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns”—a metaphor that speaks to the possibility of developing new paradigms and creating new centers of gravity in our thinking.
Those of us who have worked in the field for years know that the capacity building paradigm must change—we must move from a focus on building clients’ technical capacity toward a focus on partnering with organizations to build cultures of liberation.
Capacity builders have written extensively about transforming capacity building, about reframing the power of capacity building work and who benefits from it. I myself have written about upbuilding, a framework built on the tenets of care, equity, and anti-oppression. In this framework, what I call care-pacity building is a key positional shift; the entire field must center care for people because, ultimately, capacity building is about supporting people, navigating change, and shaping culture.
As the late historian Howard Zinn noted, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. In other words, capacity building is never a neutral process. Building capacity requires adopting particular missions, visions, and goals. Capacity does not exist in a vacuum. If you are enhancing a group’s ability to act, you must ask, to what end?
As with policy advocacy, there is a material shift in people’s life circumstances when we do our work well. Well-run organizations can change the world. When we increase organizational efficacy, we become part of world changing efforts. A capacity builder must choose who to serve. Not all nonprofits, after all, have social justice-oriented missions.
We can start with two guideposts as we reimagine our work. First, capacity-builders are sector-shaping powerhouses, and we are often uncomfortable with that power because we know we’re not frontline social justice warriors. But we can’t hide in the back office. We need to look reflect on who we’re serving and why.
For example, at CRE (Community Resource Exchange), the nonprofit that I lead, our role is to support movements for racial and economic justice. We also believe community-based organizations drive social change. And at the heart of community-based organizations are people.
In our soon-to-be released strategic plan, we champion community-based organizations and advocate for them in philanthropy. Increasingly, we’re calling ourselves coaches—and not consultants—because we know that organizational development that fails to center people does not achieve durable impact. And because we prioritize working with BIPOC folks, we know we need coaching not just in leadership, but to unpack our conditioned beliefs that are often not true, but products of a racist, patriarchal, capitalistic system.
Second, we must redefine success, which too often focuses on technical measures, rather than on whether the organization is shifting power or changing narratives in the directions they desire. Liberatory, anti-oppression approaches and tools like the “appreciative inquiry” approach and “strengths-finders”—which do not use a deficit mindset but, rather, an asset-based framework—are steps in that direction. Such redefining also requires ensuring that the communities we support define success.
One Capacity-Building Story: My Own
Capacity builders have the power to shape definitions of success. Let me tell you a story.
Long before I led CRE, I was a client. At the time, I directed Sakhi, a community-based organization serving South-Asian survivors of domestic violence. We did not measure success according to the quantity of orders of protection or court proceedings that we were involved in—in contrast to most anti-domestic violence organizations. But it was difficult to articulate an alternative metric.
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Working with a capacity-building adviser helped us to craft a theory of change that captured the true success and importance of our work: namely, self-sufficiency for the women who came to us for support, community-centered interventions, multi-generational impact, and other metrics outside the carceral system.
Our new metrics didn’t land well with our government funder, but capacity building support helped us to center ourselves and have frank, transformative conversations that positioned our group as a progressive, feminist, anti-violence organization. That, in turn, led to unprecedented success—as defined by us!
Capacity builders have the benefit of working with multiple organizations, which, if you listen closely to the people you work with, broadens your perspectives on success in leadership and organizational development. That said, one does find common threads across organizations, such as “leadership is a test of resilience.” Indeed, resilience is essential to working in the nonprofit sector—the ability to bounce back, engage in practices of care, and most critically, understand that any imposter syndrome and self-doubt you may feel is produced, in large part, by the oppressive system you work in.
Being able to bounce back requires being able to face failure and work through it. Resilient leaders must be courageous. For this reason, bravery ought to be an indicator of the success of leadership programs, and we must have ways to measure it. For example, one might ask the organizational staff being served: Do you feel braver than when you started? Are you more comfortable with failure? Do you feel supported? And the capacity-building organization might ask itself: How are your programs delivering an increase in metrics in such areas as supporting brave and caring leadership development? Success indicators can measure if nonprofits center people and equity—whether they are staffed by inspired people.
This is not to deny that importance of more conventional measures—such as “Is this organization well managed?” Because nonprofits operate in an ecosystem of partnerships and coalitions with other nonprofits, government, foundations, and communities, management for liberatory ends still involves ensuring that organizations deliver on outcomes and are reliable partners. Even as nonprofits might seek to dismantle parts, if not all, of the system, they must navigate this system.
Challenging Nonprofit Board Norms
Another emerging critique in the nonprofit sector—one that’s been festering for a while—focuses on the inequitable relationship between nonprofits and their boards. The latter have extraordinary power yet are often least vested in the organization’s work and success. In part, in response to this critique, more people are forming collectives and organizations outside the 501c3 system.
Does this mean capacity builders should work with nonprofits to better manage their boards or to work around them if needed? Or does this mean helping nonprofits to dismantle their 501c3 and set up a different sort of organization? Are capacity builders ready for our own anti-oppression work so that form follows function, even if that means helping the groups we work with develop organizational forms that may not be nonprofit in structure?
Cultivating the Capacity-Building Garden
A world without capacity builders who operate under a different sun—that is, who shift their focus to liberatory, anti-oppressive approaches to social justice and not simply building capacity for capacity’s sake—would be a loss to the sector, particularly for smaller nonprofits, many of which are held together by pure passion and commitment to their communities. As the former executive director of Sakhi, I know what capacity building did for me. It went against the norms, and the result was enlightening and productive.
Canceling capacity building sounds good, but even better would be doing such work differently. “We must cultivate our garden” as Voltaire said. And so, capacity builders must imagine what care-pacity building really looks like.
Again, many nonprofit workers know that they seek to shift power and change narratives—and upend oppressive systems. In Sakhi’s case, we needed a coach, ally, and supporter. Fortunately, we found a capacity builder who played this role. If, rather than just provide technical support, we reflect critically on how we use our power to advance social justice, and if we truly listen to and partner with the nonprofits we serve, capacity builders can be effective values-aligned change agents that accelerate the realization of social justice goals.