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Global Social Change Philanthropy - Building Organizational Capacity

What do we mean by capacity building, and why is it important to social change philanthropy?

Capacity building is:

"a process of developing and strengthening skills, instincts, abilities, processes and resources that nonprofits and communities need to survive, adapt and thrive in a fast-changing world."(1)

an approach to development, not something separate from it. It is a response to the multi dimensional processes of change, not a set of discrete or pre-packaged technical interventions intended to bring about a pre-defined outcome. In supporting organizations working for social justice, it is also necessary to support the various capacities they require to do this: intellectual, organizational, social, political, cultural, material, practical, or financial."(2)

an activity that enhances the ability of people to take control of their lives and create the formal and informal structures and institutions that ensure dignity, democracy and justice.

Gw/oB believes that people at the grassroots make change. Capacity building puts that theory into practice. Here are some examples of how it can be done:

International Development Exchange, IDEX

Gramin Vikas Vigyan Samiti (GRAVIS), India

Mine workers in India are covered under the Mines Act 1952, which purportedly regulates the working conditions in mines by providing for safety measures and certain amenities for workers. To ensure that the provisions of the Act are implemented, IDEX supports GRAVIS to build the capacity of the mineworkers union to: understand the provisions of the Act, provide legal aid, file petitions in the court against mine owners who are in violation, and establish a family compensation fund for people killed or handicapped while working in the mines. Awareness campaigns are organized each month to focus on rights of mineworkers, violation of mine laws, community issues, health hazards and the role of the union. IDEX has helped GRAVIS set up the Health Environment and Development Consortium, the advocacy center, to help with research work, train union members, file petitions and publish newsletters and articles. IDEX also helps GRAVIS expand its networking and national/international outreach to help Rajasthan's miners reach other miners and supporters around the world. This includes promoting the website about mine workers,, their concerns and successes; expanding its newsletter; and networking with NGOs and doctors in other countries to broaden GRAVIS message and obtain new information about miners' health and safety. For more on GRAVIS and its work, please visit and

Strengthening Micro-Credit Programs in Latin America

In February 2000, our partners from Latin America (Mexico, Guatemala and Nicaragua) gathered for the first time in Guatemala to discuss our work and develop joint action proposals. Because all of the partners operate revolving (micro-credit) funds, we agreed to share information about their respective funds, what has worked and what hasn't, in an effort to learn from each other’s experiences and to work together to improve our efforts. We also agreed to launch an electronic mail list serve to facilitate communication and to share information about free trade policies and their impact in the region. IDEX funded an exchange between our partners in Chiapas (DESMI) and our partners in Guatemala City (ISMU) so that each could learn from the experiences of the other's revolving (micro-credit) fund. Three women from ISMU traveled to Chiapas in July 2000 to meet with DESMI project coordinators and women borrowers. In addition to learning about the management of the revolving fund, ISMU was impressed by the women’s attempts to develop preventative health programs in their communities, an area ISMU has expertise in. As a result, ISMU has invited three women from Chiapas to Guatemala to receive training from its members in preventative health care and health promotion.
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Lambi Fund of Haiti

Training is a fundamental component of the Lambi Fund of Haiti's strategy to help grassroots organizations build capacity. Because Lambi grants generally seed or improve an existing project, we expect the projects to become self-sustaining after a few years. This requires considerable training of folks who have a tremendous amount of indigenous wisdom but due to illiteracy, often lack the technical and management skills to effectively manage a large project.

Every Lambi-funded project includes technical and management training. Beyond these seminars, however, Lambi also organizes regional training conferences to bring together members from grassroots groups whose projects we fund, to exchange ideas among themselves, build solidarity and increase their knowledge. In 2002, we organized and funded five such conferences, on topics such as animal husbandry, micro-credit project management, and organizational capacity building.

Because Lambi believes capacity building can be more effective when similar groups have opportunities to share lessons learned, regional training conferences among peasant leaders is a priority. These meetings bring together members from different grassroots groups to focus on topics relating to their community work.

Some gatherings focus on technical aspects of the development projects. One such conference assembled people involved in Lambi-funded pig husbandry projects, to learn more about animal nutrition, breeding practices and veterinary care. Other conferences center on organizational practices and leadership development. Topics include how to animate a group, how to run effective, democratic meetings, and how to ensure that information circulates among members (and in rural Haiti, this means without the use of telephones or a postal system!).

Lambi has organized many conferences specifically for women, to discuss the particular challenges women face. For example, when in a co-ed group, women have to work to ensure that the male members really trust them and value their participation. By meeting together, women share strategies and encourage one another.

How these conferences are run reflects their aim. By using popular education methods -- educational games, songs, role playing and small group discussions -- the training shows that everyone's participation is valued. This is democracy in action, the cornerstone of the Lambi Fund's mission. Participants then carry these methods and ideas back to their organizations.
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ArtCorps was created by New England Biolabs Foundation (NEBF) to build the capacity of local NGOs by getting their message communicated more sustainably and successfully. During site visits, NEBF came to realize that communicating messages – i.e., social marketing – is a challenge confronting even those grant recipients with good ideas and financial resources. Too often, communities are called into a room and told about a project, then handed seeds or medicine and sent on their way. But as one expert notes: “numerous studies show that behavior change rarely occurs as a result of simply providing information…. Behavior change is most effectively achieved through initiatives delivered at the community level which focus on removing barriers to an activity while simultaneously enhancing the activities’ benefits.”

ArtCorps sends volunteer artists to Central America to work for 9 months with local groups to foster social awareness through community art. One successful project has been with Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in Uaxactún, Guatemala, in the heart of the Mundo Maya. WCS Uaxactún’s efforts to address poverty and biodiversity loss were recognized when they were selected as one of 27 finalists for the United Nations Development Programme’s Equator Initiative in 2002. The director wrote of one artist: “By wedding our message, conservation, to the medium of art, Natascha has motivated the leaders of tomorrow (the children), while improving today for all the village’s inhabitants. Natascha’s eye-catching graphics have gotten our message out much better than the spoken word or printed paper. WCS is also indebted to ArtCorps for the appreciation we have received from the village adults, for supporting their youth, and for providing healthy and stimulating activities that expand the children’s horizons.”

Selected Resources for Capacity Building

“What is Capacity Development?”
Webpage on Capacity.Org, a portal to the issues, debates and organizations developing the theory and practice of capacity building.

Resource Mobilisation - when will donors wake up?
Rob Wells, Director of Catalyst Works, advocates for funds for capacity building in fundraising and challenges donors to include funding support for NGO resource mobilisation in their funding criteria.

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations offers numerous resources on evaluation of capacity building efforts, including reports, conference handouts and presentations, free publications, and links to other sites. GEO’s member survey gathered data on the organizational effectiveness and capacity-building efforts of its members and results are available on its website.

Forefront, a global network of human rights defenders, promotes and protects a culture of human rights observance by strengthening human rights organizations worldwide. It publishes a Handbook series that provides guidance on capacity building and strengthening organizations.

“When Capacity Grants Flatline,” article from Foundation News & Commentary

Global Philanthropy and Foundation Building Program at Synergos Institute

(1) The Nonprofit Quarterly, Winter 1999)
(2) Eade, D. 1997. "What is Capacity-Building?" in Capacity-Building, An Approach to People-Centered Development, pp. 23-49. Oxford: Oxfam Publications.
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Global Social Change Philanthropy - Development at the Grassroots - Resources - Advocacy