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      Principles of Capacity Strengthening

Recently, a colleague gave me a paper entitled, Building the Capacity of Non Governmental Organizations in the South: The Principles and Practices of Northern Bilateral Multilateral, and Foundation Owners. One of the purposes of the study was to "Investigate the principles and practice of Northern Donor organizations in respect to capacity building of Southern NGOs". The findings, which are not surprising, was that the donors do not have commonly accepted principles of capacity building, nor commonly accepted definition of capacity building (6 out of 10 had no definition at all) nor commonly accepted methodology for capacity building. I say this is not surprising because capacity building is a concept, not a field of study or practice; so of course everyone is going to take a different approach to it.

But what I did find interesting is the concept of trying to develop principles for capacity building. This is something the field of Organizational Development (OD) has been working on for over thirty years - what are the principles and effective methods for helping an organization become more effective at meeting its vision and surviving in turbulent external environments (why capacity builders in the NGO world continually ignore OD is a mystery to me, but that is another article).

Since my training and educational background is in OD and I work in the are of capacity building with NGOs, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to put forward my suggestions for principles of capacity building.

I started by changing the name from capacity building to capacity strengthening. As I explain below, I am on the horns of a dilemma regarding choosing words; words are very important, but at the same time, I get tired of semantic wrangling. Nevertheless, I don't like the metaphor of building as in, develop a blue print, get the materials, put it together, and your are done. Capacity strengthening is a never ending process - situations change, organizations grow or shrink, and learnings always take place requiring changes in thinking, perceptions, skills, methods, systems, structure, and approaches, in other words, capacity. This said, below are my suggestions for the principles of capacity strengthening. 

Principles of "Capacity Strengthening"

  1. Capacity Strengthening is collaborative process between an external helper (consultant) and an organization asking for help (client) designed to help the client organization improve its performance in relation to its mission, context, resources, and sustainability.

    • Interventions are capacity strengthening only when both parties, the consultant and client, freely enter into an agreement with the purpose of improving the client's services and sustainability.

    • Capacity strengthening interventions are designed to improve the services and sustainability of the client organization, not to achieve some outside concept of an "ideal" organization.

    • Evaluation of the impacts of capacity strengthening focus on results which demonstrate an improvement of the clients ability to fulfill its mission and provide the services it says it provides as well as results which demonstrate increased survivability (or sustainability) of the organization.

  2. Capacity strengthening is a collaborative process based on feed back and Action Research (Action Research here is defined as a research process which integrates members of the system under study into the research team).

    • The consulting and client organizations work collaboratively (50/50) to define the problem, collect data, analyze the data, and develop possible solutions. The client organization (NGO) then takes full responsibility for implementing the solutions chosen.

    • The capacity strengthening process is the same for all client organizations, although the content of interventions may change depending on the current level of a client's "capacity"

    • Capacity strengthening is not a set of discrete activities, but a process designed to influence complex human and organizational systems

    • All outside interventions have an impact on capacity.

  3. Capacity strengthening respects the organizational independence of the client organization receiving assistance:

    • The client organization is responsible for its own development.

    • The client organization is solely responsible for deciding on, implementing, or participating in capacity strengthening activities.

    • Managerial prerogatives for projects, programs, and the organization rest solely with the client organization. Capacity strengthening providers can not force clients to adopt strategy, tactics, managerial systems nor financial systems.

    • The role of the consulting organization (donor, Northern NGO) is to help the client organization (NGO) more effectively achieve its own mission and vision - not the mission/vision of the of the consulting organization (if this is a major concern for the consulting organization, then that organization must ensure that it only provides capacity strengthening to clients which have matching missions and/or visions)

    • All information collected during capacity strengthening assessments belong to the client, which has the right to keep the information private or publicize it as it sees fit. In particular, donors have no a-priori rights to that information.

    • Those persons or organizations directly providing capacity strengthening to clients are primary responsible for professionally and ethically developing the capacity of the recipient organization in the interest of the client organization not in the interest of the consulting organization (funder or donor).

  4. Organizations providing capacity strengthening maintain and upgrade the appropriate expertise in both the process and content of Capacity Strengthening.

    • Capacity Strengthening Organizations have clear and explicit models of human and organizational change and are able to explain and apply them

    • Capacity Strengthening Organizations have staffs with the appropriate expertise in technical areas, management, OD, and organizational behavior and personal behavioral change.

    • Capacity strengthening Organizations do not offer what they do not have or can not do.

    • All capacity strengthening contracts, grants, or agreements are to be entered into freely - neither party should feel forced to participate in capacity strengthening activities

    • Capacity strengthening Organizations understand and apply the 5 steps of the consulting process and the 6 steps of effective contracting

    Comments from Friends:

    Putting a principle statement such as this is an interesting exercise in determining values and then translating them into a written language. Often, I am one of the first to insist on the importance of language and looking for the real meaning imbedded in words and metaphors. On the other hand, at times I also get frustrated with semantic nitpicking when it is a form of resistance. I always find this an interesting dilemma. That said, in putting this together, I have received some very helpful comments on language. In my first cut at this I described an organization receiving capacity strengthening as the recipient. It was suggested that this implied passivity on part of that actor in the process. The suggested replacement was Partner. I thought about this and came to the conclusion that both organizations were partners. Designating only one side as a partner destroys the meaning of the word. Using partner to refer to both sides gets confusing. Therefore, I have settled on consulting organization or capacity strengthening provider for the Northern Donor or NGO and client for the Southern NGO. For capacity strengthening to follow the above principles, both these sides have to develop a real partnership, and I think these terms indicate that both sides bring something positive to that partnership.

    If you have any other comments or suggestions, send me an email ( and I will add them to this page. It would be fun to get a nice discussion going - so let me know what you think.

    (Click on this link to Capacity, Capability, & Competency by Brenda Jones for a very thoughtful article.)


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