Reimagining Capacity Building: Seven Shifts

by Leona Christy, CEO at Catalyst:Ed

What if every education and nonprofit leader has the support and guidance they need to accomplish their goals, lead high-performing organizations, and foster a healthy culture? What if every team that seeks to create and sustain equitable learning communities has access to the expertise it needs to learn, innovate, and execute with excellence? What if every community is supported by an ecosystem of effective, equity-oriented institutions that work symbiotically to spark transformational change? 

Every day, at Catalyst:Ed, I come across examples of capacity building efforts that catalyze impact and change. I hear from leaders and teams who feel empowered and energized because they have honed their skills and knowledge, strengthened their organizational systems, or built deep relationships with each other and the communities they serve. I see organizations that have become more effective, innovative, equitable, and resilient – and more prepared to change entrenched systems. Each of these stories reminds me that capacity building is as critical to an organization’s well-being, impact, and sustainability as health and wellness is to an individual’s.

But capacity building doesn’t always live up to its potential. Capacity building, as traditionally practiced in the social sector, focuses on creating beautiful plans rather than engaging with an often messy reality or confronting systemic inequities. It is inaccessible to those working in close proximity to historically underinvested and disenfranchised communities. It relies on one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore the unique needs, interests, and capacities of organizations. Devoid of context and absent trust and collaboration, capacity-building is set up to fail.

What needs to be true for capacity building to consistently manifest as a powerful, equity-centered, and strategic force, driving transformational change in schools and communities? This question feels especially critical to us at Catalyst:Ed, given our work supporting leaders and teams in identifying the right approaches and providers for their capacity-building needs, strengthening the provider ecosystem, and shaping policies and practices through the insights and stories we share. Our reflections – rooted in our experiences supporting leaders and teams across more than a thousand nonprofits, schools, and state and local agencies and our values – have led us to articulate the ways in which capacity building conditions and practices must shift, so that it fully supports the leaders and teams that are tackling today’s biggest challenges. These shifts are grounded in three core tenets:

  • Individualized support is necessary, yet collective learning is possible. Organizations vary, so there is no single capacity-building solution. Instead, leaders and teams need support that is tailored to their unique needs, priorities, and contexts. At the same time, the insights that emerge from these individualized journeys must contribute to our collective understanding of what’s working and why.
  • Equity is a compass. A focus on equity and justice must be integrated into capacity building, guiding decisions on what support looks like, who benefits from it, and, importantly, to what end. Capacity building must also include diverse voices, especially those who are most marginalized, attend to its impact on communities, and be in service of creating a more equitable and just society. 
  • There is no progress without trust. Capacity building work is human work – and humans need to trust and be trusted in order to learn and grow. Trust encourages calculated risk-taking and fortifies against setbacks and failures, ultimately leading to more impactful, equitable, and innovative solutions.

The seven shifts 

Shift 1: Unequally accessed ➡ Available to all: Capacity building is currently accessible only to a small subset of well-resourced, mainstream organizations. Instead it must become available to all organizations, especially the grassroots organizations that are proximate to historically marginalized communities. For this to be true, all leaders and teams must have access to funding and resources and be able to easily find and connect with capacity building approaches and providers that align with their needs and contexts and fit their budgets.

Shift 2: Deficit-oriented ➡ Mission-driven: Capacity building is often inordinately influenced by funder priorities and preferences and based on a narrow understanding of gaps or weaknesses. Instead it must be based on what organizations need to further their mission and serve their communities, and informed by the perspectives of those who will be most affected.

Shift 3: Equity optional ➡ Equity-centered: Equity is often an afterthought, and typically limited to DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) projects. Instead, all capacity building efforts must be intentional about integrating equity and focused on creating equitable and inclusive learning environments and communities where all learners thrive.

Shift 4: Homogenous ➡ Diverse, responsive, and contextualized: Capacity building over-indexes on “best practices” that were typically developed for a small set of well-resourced mainstream nonprofits and delivered by a small set of elite consultants. Instead, the field must be characterized by a range of innovative approaches that are responsive to the priorities and contexts of a diverse set of organizations, and co-created in partnership with a diverse set of providers.

Shift 5: Limited ➡ Holistic and integrated: Capacity building efforts are often based on a narrow understanding of capacity and delivered through a restricted set of modalities. Instead, these efforts mustbe holistic, seeking to strengthen organizational skills, knowledge, culture, systems, resources, and power, and utilizing different modalities (peer learning, coaching, technical assistance, hands-on support). It must also be integrated with organizational priorities in order to create overall coherence.

Shift 6: Ad hoc ➡ Data-driven and strategic: The field lacks data on different approaches and providers, as well as the conditions necessary for them to be successful. As a result, capacity building efforts are often initiated in an ad hoc way. Instead, leaders and teams need access to data and information so they can engage in an intentional process to decide on what needs to prioritize, what approaches to take, and what providers to partner with.

Shift 7: Static and disconnected ➡ Dynamic, connected, and accountable: Finally, capacity building efforts often operate in silos, disconnected from emerging research and practice, and shielded from real-time feedback. Instead, it must be plugged in to emerging research and practice, constantly enriched with feedback, and contributing to collective learning.

While these shifts feel ambitious, I have never felt more optimistic. I see a growing set of capacity building leaders, practitioners, funders, policymakers, researchers, and other stakeholders questioning the status quo, seeking new ways of being and doing, and building new solutions. Over the next few months, we will shine a spotlight on their perspectives and stories and look at the research and data, as we dig into each of the shifts in more detail and go from the “what ifs” outlined here to the “what next”.

This work cannot be accomplished alone or in silos, and we know there are many who are already engaged in this work. We invite you to join the conversation. Please email me with your thoughts. I look forward to dreaming and building with you!


Seven shifts by Catalyst:Ed

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