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Updated: Sep 29, 2023

One of the most difficult things to get right in organizational capacity building is the approach. This explains why training is the default, because you can plan for it, outline it, and it gives your “capacity building ”a framework. It’s nice to be able to list the different types of training you’ll be doing. But this approach to organizational capacity building forgets the most important dynamic in building trust, changing behavior, shifting world views: human connection and interaction. Here are some tips on how to build the connections and trust necessary to actually change the way people work, interact and make decisions.

4 Tips to understand the importance of conversation in capacity building

Have a conversation:

Put the PowerPoints, documents and elaborate tools and processes away. Curious and inquisitive discussion – really listening to the interests, preoccupations and ideas of the person you are talking to – is the best and most transformative way to share ideas. While providing technical support to an irrigated gardening project, we found that farmers weren’t producing in parts of an irrigated site. When we asked why, no one knew – because no one had asked. They had, however, given a training on good production methods! Later on, we discovered that the farmers didn't have enough water to produce. Ask the question, be curious, and try to understand the root of the issue before providing any solutions.

Meet people where they are:

If an organization is struggling to keep their website maintained, it is not productive – and can lead to greater frustration - to propose a new website on a difficult to manage platform because it is industry standard. If they can barely post to Facebook and do not have a regular social media presence, don’t also give them 10 other communication channels to manage. If they struggle to maintain good relationships with existing funders, don’t tell them all the other ways they could be fundraising. In other words, meet them where they are – ask them what is feasible – and don’t overwhelm them. Focus on what they CAN do, NOT on what they should do and can’t.

Figure out their needs:

Zai holes are a soil fertility technique to reclaim degraded land. Development organizations have trained farmers in zai holes for the last 50 years. Other than a few exceptions, farmers don’t adopt zai holes, because they are incredibly labor intensive, and farmers don’t perceive a significant benefit. Yet projects persist in demonstrating the technique and scratching their heads when no one – surprise –adopts it. If they had a conversation, and met the farmers where they were at, these well-meaning projects would have learned what the farmers need and want – which is low labor, high impact solutions to soil fertility. Once those terms were defined it would be much easier for projects to provide the kind of solutions that farmers would like to have and would be likely to adopt.

Engage as equals:

Often times, in capacity building relationships, the person or group doing the capacity-building is “good” and the person or group receiving is “bad” in the sense that capacity building is inherently about making someone or something “better.” This creates an unequal power dynamic from the very beginning, which establishes a passive relationship. The tips here – conversation, curiosity, openness – are about equity. Instead of coming with your predetermined tips and ideas, an open, adaptive approach is an equitable one, demonstrating that the capacity “buildee” also has ideas and perspectives that are valuable and important.

Building capacity without a training plan and a toolkit of approaches is destabilizing. And we are not suggesting that training and more formal methods are not necessary. Training is effective when developed together with the organization whose capacity is being built, and once the four elements outlined above are considered and addressed. Entering into a capacity building relationship as a partnership of equals, where solutions are develop collaboratively and openly, is transformative and impactful.


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