The future of capacity building

22 December 2015 | Nonkululeko Sikakane | Opinion

In an era of sustainable development, the importance of coupling donor funding with capacity building interventions has increased over the past 20 years. In the 1950s, when the capacity building concept took root in international development, the focus was on institution building, where models were merely imported from developed countries with very little attention to contextual issues. Thinking about capacity building has since evolved substantially, with increasing recognition of the importance of a systems perspective.


Many NPOs have strong expertise in identifying and providing support for the needs of vulnerable communities. Capacity-building support is needed to ensure the organisation aligns strategy, people and processes. Photo courtesy of Beyond Access

The Canadian Hunger Fund notes that international best practice in capacity building of non-profit organisations (NPOs) advocates an approach with three main components:

  • Technical assistance provides for strengthening organisations in certain key technical areas, often through training or other forms of learning such as study or exchange visits. Areas of training can include, for example, improved approaches to monitoring and evaluation (M&E) or results-based management and the development of new financial systems. Tailor-made technical assistance can also be used with organisations to achieve legal registration, to review programmes and carry out strategic planning
  • Organisational support is made up of financial support provided to partner organisations. It can include assistance with programme funding or core operational costs to support implementation on the ground while other components of capacity building take place
  • Organisational development includes activities to strengthen partner organisations so that they are better able to deliver the intended development results and realise their own organisational goals. It is a process that aims to facilitate understanding and change in an organisation, improving the alignment between the organisation’s internal systems and structures, improving its relationships with stakeholders and its operational activities, and bringing them closer to their aspirations as an organisation

Within the past few years, in order to attract more funding in the face of the funding crisis experienced by many organisations, there has been a resounding call by many corporates and government for NPOs to “professionalise”. This has resulted in the gradual introduction of basic strategic planning, monitoring, evaluation and general management skills within the NPO sector. However, many NPOs do not have the capacity or the capability to make the shift from their traditional welfare practices to adopting approaches that ultimately improve organisational effectiveness.

Donors should therefore be supporting capacity-building approaches that strengthen the organisational development of NPOs. Many NPOs have strong expertise in identifying and providing support for the needs of vulnerable communities. Capacity-building support is needed to ensure the organisation aligns strategy, people and processes.

This approach was recently piloted by a Tshikululu-managed client, with a capacity building programme (CBP) providing in-depth organisational support for NPOs that were delivering quality services, but had room for improvement, particularly in terms of organisational systems, processes and strategies.

A total of 13 partners participated in the CBP over a 17-month period, focusing on assisting organisations to become more professionally run and managed. The CBP was implemented in four phases: selection, assessment, intervention and evaluation. The participants showed significant improvements in the areas of governance, operational efficiency and sustainability. Important organisational development concepts such as the clarification of roles, having a succession plan in place and utilising performance management systems were some of the key levers in improving the sustainability of NPO partners. Some key learnings from the CBP included:

  • The importance of selection: organisations must have the capacity, capability, willingness and ability to change. This also speaks to the participatory approach
  • Length of programme: building, maintaining and supporting the backbone of NPOs is not something that happens overnight. To provide the most effective support possible, as well as ensuring that the improvements are deeply embedded into the organisation’s DNA, more than one year is preferable (at least three years is ideal)
  • M&E: measuring improvements and changes in organisational effectiveness and efficiency is not a clear-cut exercise, which is compounded by the difficulty of measuring impact in the welfare sector more generally. It is critical that M&E systems and tools are continuously reviewed and refined. There must also be an openness to learn from negative experiences
  • Don’t skimp on skills: programmes of this nature must have facilitators with a rich knowledge and understanding of a number of areas, as well as the maturity to handle difficult conversations and challenges. If participating organisations do not respect the facilitators, or do not believe they are credible, the programme will undoubtedly fail. Ideally, facilitators would have extensive experience in and knowledge of both the corporate and NPO environment as well

It is important to note that capacity building is a complex and continuous process that can be very much “two steps forward, one step back”. Thus, donors must remain flexible and adaptive in their approach.