Unpacking What We Mean by “Capacity Building”

Monday, May 16, 2016 - 19:45
capacity building with Community Partners

We talk a lot about “capacity building” and take for granted everyone knows what that term means. But what we’ve woven intentionally into our organizational DNA might be less obvious to others than we think. A brief look behind the scenes at Community Partners should help.

Take a peek through the tall door-side window of our main conference room on a recent training day. Staff members from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health huddle intently in conversation. A facilitator or participant occasionally annotates a discussion by affixing to the wall a sticky note with a key point jotted on it. Eager to clarify, someone diagrams a set of complex relationships on a white board for all to assess. A presenter talks through a slide deck projected on a giant wall-mounted monitor. A satisfying, energetic buzz punctuated by the knowing ‘aha’ of laughter bears all the markings of a committed group translating disparate thoughts on vital ideas and human lives into a concrete, understandable plan of action.

A team of 40 public health nurses, community health educators, department heads, and other DPH staff have taken a break from daily duties to reflect, grow insight and prepare for strengthened leadership roles, sometimes with entirely new hats. They’ll leave this meeting ready to help the department more seamlessly build networks among the likes of businesses, faith congregations, community organizations and other groups changing neighborhood conditions and individual behaviors in ways that lead to improved health.

“The group of people we worked with today were overjoyed to see an actual job description for a network or coalition manager,” said Cynthia Freeman, a Community Partners senior program director and one of the lead trainers. “The lightbulbs were really going on when we named and described the different types of networks…and they’d recognize the kind of group they’d been working in.” Everyone got really excited.”

Armed with our book, “Networks That Work,” and the tools, knowledge and experience explored in the training, the DPH team members leave with new confidence to develop and lead coalitions addressing tobacco use, asthma, infectious diseases, hunger and more. Everyone leaves with greater capacity for the work ahead, for elevating lives in measurably important ways.

We reprise this kind of work continually. Last week, for example, we hosted leaders of community organizations in Los Angeles County’s 2nd Supervisorial District. The 2nd District Capacity Building and Leadership Development Program expands the capacity of people running small- to-mid-sized organizations to achieve greater organizational sustainability, program service effectiveness, and financial strength. In addition to intensive learning sessions, participants connect to a network of local experts and executive coaches. The venture represents a collaborative partnership among a set of long-time allies: Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the California Community Foundation, Empowerment Congress and Community Partners.

Similarly, we worked this month alongside leaders of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs to pilot the Arts Activation Fund. We’re helping the Department accelerate their grantmaking, and we’ll be working with artist-grantees on developing business skills, a boost artists appreciate and often need.

Next month, who knows what work will unfold in our training rooms? The calendar indicates a richness and range of activities ahead. Our staff are engaged with design teams from agencies, organizations and networks near and far.

We’re certain that successful capacity building sharpens front-line action and deepens high-level thinking. Because of that, we’re all in on binding our core DNA to that of any group anywhere that cares about the quality of community life as much as we do. That gives all of us, together, a better shot at seeing the tough problems, tackling them early, and flexing with agility, since challenges in a place as complex as Los Angeles come and go with tidal power and flow. Capacity building strengthens the muscle it takes to navigate and thrive in tricky currents.