Class in Capacity Building

Deborah Linnell, funder, capacity-building expert and Class Action bloggerI have been fairly obsessed with issues having to do with nonprofit capacity building since 1991 – leadership, governance, sustainability, constituent voice, hierarchical organizations versus flatter ones, and so forth.

From the1980s into the 1990s, capacity builders can be blamed in some part for the mantra of “nonprofits need to be more business like.”  The turn of the century saw more and more sophistication of nonprofit management theory and capacity building, and a type of expertise and language-building reminiscent of academia. “We are expert and understand these theories and terms and therefore worthy of our fees.”  Hmmmmm.

I, myself, have gotten caught up in the jargon – and sometimes gotten lost in not even understanding it, especially when social enterprise came on the scene. I have somehow never resonated with the vernacular, and I remember thinking, Isn’t that what people were kind of all doing back in the ’60s and ’70s when many important cause-related fields emerged out of the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements?

We were just too busy to analyze and give names to the work. Our collective impact – wasn’t that what the domestic violence field (in which I started my work) all about? Back then, of course, it was called a movement or feminist management theory. But we didn’t write a bunch of management books about. We were focused on the next most important work to achieve (together): an end of violence against women. When did thing get so complex? When were fancy degrees so important to deep and sound community-based work?

The Basic Ingredients for Success

Based on the success of the work I was involved in with others in the 1980s, I got very interested in:

  1. the basic ingredients that make for successful nonprofit organizations – ones that can deliver effectively on the promise of their mission and on the work that organizations do together,
  2. and, more importantly, on how people in the community get heard and their needs get addressed.

I have sometimes found that nonprofit leaders think they speak on behalf of the people in the communities they serve. They believe that they can represent the people they are designed to support and serve or that their staff are “gatekeepers,” protecting the status of the nonprofit over the needs and voice of those people.

Philanthropy and capacity building would be in better service of communities comprised of diverse people of many persuasions, and classes, if it asked a lot of questions of nonprofits – but also of the actual people the nonprofit serves.”

It is an attitude of doing for rather than doing with. And it is pretty endemic and pretty insulting. There is very little in nonprofit capacity building or philanthropy that works to help organizations get into authentic relationship with people in the community. Those groups that do often use theories and language that are jargon-laden and just a bit too precious.

Get Down to the Essentials

As I have aged, things have boiled down to a few important lessons:

  • Respect the knowledge and experience of others.
  • Be true to yourself while stretching to know others.
  • Say what you need to say as simply and clearly as you can manage – even in the face of immense complexities.
  • Have high expectations of people, meaning have the guts to hold yourself and others accountable for your promises, language and actions.
  • Process is not equal to the ends, it is more important.
  • Clear values and principles are essential to any work.

And so you have the elites who make grants to nonprofits: wonky capacity builders who over-intellectualize leadership and management practices and gate-keeper-type nonprofits that are protective of turf, jobs and points of view. I have been all of these in turn. But as I get older, I just want to get down to the essentials. That means figuring out what those essentials are for yourself and for others.

Ask the People Served

Philanthropy and capacity building would be in better service of communities comprised of diverse people of many persuasions, and classes, if it asked a lot of questions of nonprofits, but also of the actual people the nonprofit serves. Ideally, lines would be crossed and people would sit together and begin to co-discover:

  • What matters about this situation?
  • Why does it matter?
  • Who can help us understand more about it from diverse perspectives? (yes, including data).
  • Who else knows about this and works on it?
  • What are we going to do about it with what partners and supports?

You might add “how will we know what success looks like?” You really have to get at all that outcome and impact stuff. But really if you trusted people and communities to do the work they need to do as rooted in their own analysis and words, then it really would simply be about them or you telling the story of their pathway to victory, change, positive benefit and the challenges met and lessons learned along the way.

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