There are occasional debates underway within the capacity building, and to some extent, within the academic communities concerning non-profit strategy and accountability. To us, what appears to be lacking within this debate is a clear and useful conceptual framework for the discussion. This is further exacerbated by the lack of a detailed conceptual map for how a non-profit evolves through time and by the fact that, largely, capacity building models are not adjusted for stage of development of different industries of the sector. Think about it, there are some fields that are still quite experimental, and some others that ought to be operating on evidenced based practice by now. That difference makes a ton of difference in how an organization is managed and ought to make a difference in how we build its capacity.
From our perspective, most of the nonprofit capacity building field is, from an evidence perspective, still in the experimental stage. Even though, taken as a whole, the nonprofit capacity building field tends to seek and promulgate "normative models" rather than dynamic, process oriented models and doesn't evaluate what it does. There are many, many publications that say that "Boards should …" or "The CEO should…" as though every nonprofit in every industry or field of the sector at every stage of development has more in common than not and, as though these norms have been proven to be effective.
This became apparent to us during a four year project to redesign the capacity building infrastructure in a US city. The process of discovery undertaken to build a base of knowledge in current practice led us to ask a series of increasingly probing questions: How do organizations change? What are the most potent exterior influences that encourage nonprofit effectiveness? What is meant by nonprofit effectiveness? What are the most powerful means of building organizational capacity? What tools exist that are of proven effectiveness? How can capacity building and organizational stage be measured in sufficient detail to be helpful to the nonprofit manager and consultant?
One of the curious things we discovered as part of this process was the recognition that most of the activity in the nonprofit capacity building world deals with building the capacity of individuals rather than organizations. Most of the effort is invested in training individuals and while there are certainly many instances in which individuals attend training and then bring the new knowledge or skill back to the workplace, there is actually little evidence that this way of introducing new knowledge has a significant effect on organizational functioning. While consulting is the next most used tool, much of it is organized as a "service bureau" model...with consultants providing what consumers ask for. Very little consulting is based on a structured assessment of how well the organization is functioning relative to norms that are adjusted for stage, of organization or field.
In framing answers to the questions raised above, we focused on developing interventions that will have maximum organizational impact. This focus forced a process of deep research and cross disciplinary thinking in order to frame a more effective means of (1) understanding organizational development of nonprofits and how effective strategy development helps nonprofits evolve over time; (2) how to provide more effective capacity building that actually produces change in nonprofit organizational functioning; and, (3) how to measure whether organizational interventions have had any effect on increasing functionality. The results of this effort have transformed our practice, pushing us to develop a set of tools to measure functional stage of development, to know and understand the stage of development of the fields in which our clients operate, and to always adjust our intervention accordingly.
What do you think? How do you think about stage of development in your work?
[Thanks to WTL Photos for the great shot!