A friend of mine suffers from rage black outs every time the term ‘going forward’ is used in a sentence. ‘What does it mean?!,’ she sobs, ‘What does it add to the sentence?!’ I have a less passionate but equally genuine reaction to the term ‘capacity’.
It’s not that I don’t think it means anything but more that it’s often used as a catch-all term which avoids defining exactly what sort of capacity is lacking and how this can be addressed. When someone is talking about organisational capacity, they could be talking about anything from skills training to staff numbers or even finances.
I’ve lost count of the number of times that ‘training’ or a ‘workshop’ is proposed as a solution to an identified capacity problem. I would be the first to admit that training has its place but it’s too often employed to paper over a gap no one has really thought through how to address. Admittedly, the ambiguity of the term probably also makes it easier to communicate with peers and partners- in contrast to a ‘gap’ or a ‘problem’, ‘capacity’ can be something quite blameless and, where it is missing, it can be ‘built’.
Grumble aside, I do agree that investing in targeted support to help a partner organisation to do what it does better represents a core principle of partnership. To some extent, it is an end in and of itself but it has to be a means to an end as well. If capacity building is not accompanied by a detailed needs assessment and organisational development strategy to outline what is trying be achieved, it seems rather difficult to justify doing it at all.
But then again, what is it we are trying to achieve? Ideally, I’m sure we would all like to demonstrate that the training we offered on gender sensitivity helped a partner organisation achieve its goal of increasing women’s literacy in the local area, but (unfortunately for us) it’s not that straightforward. That’s not to say there isn’t some kind of link between the two but how do we demonstrate the link between capacity and impact, or even capacity and organisational effectiveness?
INTRAC released an interesting paper earlier this year on capacity building for advocacy. They quite rightly point out that we must have at least some idea of what increased capacity looks like if we want to be able to a) work towards it and b) demonstrate that it has been achieved. We are also advised to consider the timescales over which change happens, noting that immediate reactions of participants following training is something very different to retention and application of learning over time.
There’s a lot to be gained from investing in training and other forms of capacity building but, as with all things, it’s worthy of some careful thought if we want to work towards meaningful change. Although I might not be passing out from rage on this issue anytime soon, I may be asking for a short essay from the next person who proposes training as a solution to a problem.