Listening and Responding: Localizing Capacity Building

Capacity-building support is vital in building the long-term resilience of civil society organisations, strengthening their ability to achieve their vision, objectives, and ultimately serve the people they care for. Yet despite this critical need, many organisations cannot find capacity building that works in their best interest, if they can find it at all.

Making the case

But why is this? There has long been concern amongst donors about spending money on institutional capacity building, with emphasis firmly placed on delivering programmatic impact. With many funders under pressure to demonstrate the impact of their giving, it can be challenging for them to sell the idea of funding capacity building to boards of directors and trustees.

The ability to demonstrate the value of capacity building is central for securing organisational buy-in.  Perhaps one of the most convincing arguments out there is that only fundraising raises money, so it is worthwhile investing in it, a point well made in Dan Pallotta’s recent Harvard Business Review article.

On average, for every dollar you invest in fundraising you can produce ten dollars in new revenue, which can be spent for example, on programmatic activities. Consequently the argument for funding fundraising becomes a lot clearer, especially for donors concerned about sustainability. It is equally important to demonstrate the progress made with non-fundraising capacity-building support. For example, context specific child protection training improves the practice of the sector as a whole.

This understanding is the key that unlocks a great change needed within our sector – the need to localize our capacity building support.

Going local

Being firm believers that investment in core costs and central functions is crucial to supporting the work of civil society organisations, taking the decision to shift our model of support to one which prioritised locally-based capacity-building workshops was an obvious one.

Last Spring saw us trial regionally-based capacity-building workshops for our 2015 Impact Award winners. In total we ran three workshops, in Bogota, Colombia, Amman, Jordan and Puerto Galera, Philippines.

The decision to localize this support is tied to the view that locally-led organizations are best placed to respond to the needs of the communities they serve. To make our offer truly beneficial, we realised that workshops should be context specific and tailored to the needs of those we seek to support. Rather than providing support for what we perceived as important, we needed to listen to and respond to the views of our awardees.

Participants at Stars Foundation 2016 capacity building workshop take part in group discussion. Hosted by Impact Award winner Stairway Foundation, based in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Shalla Montero/Stars Foundation

Participants at Stars Foundation 2016 capacity building workshop take part in group discussion. Hosted by Impact Award winner Stairway Foundation, based in the Philippines. Photo Credit: Shalla Montero/Stars Foundation

The power of regional convening

We found real power in bringing together organisations from similar regions for collaborative learning. By convening comparable types of NGOs, training has been relevant to the contexts in which attendees work. For example, the majority of the participants from the Jordan workshop were experiencing similar challenges in trying to attract funding whilst working in a conflict setting, and the Latin America participants were facing similar funding challenges with donors pulling out of middle-income countries.

Arranging training by region and in-region allowed participants to feel comfortable and relevant, which many commented on as a welcome change. As a result, awardees openly shared common concerns and solutions with each other, and it has become clear that trust and strong relationships have been built in many instances. The real value in facilitating these networks is only just starting to come to light, but we are expecting much more to come from fostering these context-similar connections.

We also found real value in using a facilitator that had strong contextual knowledge and was able to converse in local language and understand cultural nuance.

Learning visits

The regional aspect of the workshops provided the opportunity to facilitate learning visits that proved hugely popular with participants, who enjoyed seeing first-hand what their peers were doing. It allowed participants to explore new ways of working, challenge their thinking, and ask direct questions about the programmatic model they were seeing. Such an immersing and experiential learning experience would not have been possible without the localized nature of the training, and has demonstrated the hidden value of conducting workshops in region. 

Being honest about power dynamics

Very aware of the power dynamics that can so often exist between funder and grantee, we wanted to do all we could to mitigate that dynamic. Awardees chose the location of the workshop and trainings were held in the local language. Content was led by the participants via a self-assessment tool which was filled in by all ahead of time, enabling attendees to shape the focus of the week.

Creating a safe space where organisations feel they can be honest and open about their challenges and areas of growth yields the best results. Whist we attended the sessions, we did so as an active participant rather than as an observer, making it clear that we had a role in finding solutions to any challenges identified by the group. The creation of the safe space was further protected by our independent facilitators whose role it was to make sure attendees felt able to express themselves freely.

Tailored content

A clear challenge came in identifying the topics that the organisations regarded as being of the utmost importance for building their capacity. This varied between organisations, so as a region they were required to agree on a topic that would be helpful for all.

In Colombia for the Latin America and Caribbean region, the workshop focused on one topic only: financial sustainability. This topic proved to be quite broad and touched on areas such as corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and corporate funding. We invited guest speakers to join in the workshop in person or on Skype, allowing those with specific expertise to provide their perspectives on the topic. Participants described this as particularly useful, so we will look to replicate this model going forward.

In the Philippines, the workshop covered fundraising and income generation, and human resources, which included succession planning, staff care and wellbeing, and governance. One of the issues that arose from this was that participants felt there was too much to cover in four days, particularly with the split between two different themes. Subsequently, some participants felt the amount of information was useful, whereas others felt they wanted to cover some areas in more detail.

The workshop topics covered in Jordan were financial sustainability, including social enterprises and income generation, and child protection. Within these topics, there were discussions on how to lessen dependence on funders and how to identify regional donors. The group also looked at a fundraising database to identify and map out donors in the region.

Making the shift: top tips

We have learned a lot from our first round of regional events, with overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants so far. We would encourage any funder to invest in regional capacity-building training. Here are some tips for those looking to make the all-important shift:

  • Gather as much feedback from attendees ahead of time. For us the self-assessment tool proved invaluable, as did the conversations facilitators had with individual attendees before the workshops took place.
  • Be mindful of power dynamics. Attendees need to feel like they are in a safe space when disclosing their weaknesses and growth areas. At times this might mean removing yourself from certain conversations to allow attendees to speak freely. 
  • Factor in enough time to organise remotely. Time zones and language barriers make communicating with venues, suppliers, and attendees more time consuming than normal.
  • Ask your attendees to set the agenda! Not only are they more likely to engage with the content, they are also more likely to get something of value from the workshops.


About the author(s)

Communications and Marketing Manager
Stars Foundation