Monday, December 10, 2007

How to redefine capacity building goals in a small organization?

'As junior advisor I work fulltime for a small African NGO to build the capacity of the organization. The organization is led by its founder and employs one secretary and two local interns. Various development organizations from the US, Germany and the Netherlands support the organization financially. I have a good relationship with the staff and I have many opportunities to strengthen the organization. Unfortunately the director seems less interested in some of the initiatives. Should I continue to improve the skills of the staff in their daily administrative tasks - which is a little frustrating- or should I renegotiate my tasks to include more capacity development activities?'

Originally the placement was intended to build capacity in the area of finances, human resources and IT. The director however, felt that it is too much involvement in management issues, and prefered that the advisor assisted the secretarial staff in daily tasks. The director had different expectations of the placement. The advisor lowered his goals, but still sees opportunities that he'd love to work on.

First of all, it is important to search for openings to introduce capacity building directions. The director appreciates the assistance in writing proposals, and administrative tasks. Is it possible to acknowledge and use these kind of openings to be involved in further capacity building of the organization? It might be good to gruadually propose other activities or ideas, activities that contribute more towards structural capacity development of the organization. Take your time to build the relationship and create a 'safe' atmosphere. Gain respect and influence without positional power, but as an advisor. Build a constructive advisory relationship.

Secondly, an understaffed office doesn't have much time to discuss basic development question, preoccupied with problems and activities as it is. So you have to create time and be creative in proposing ideas to management. Find a time that is convenient for an exchange. Then share what you see as more important than urgent challenges to work on. Don't assume there is no time, but ask for it. Furthermore a director may be quite lonely and might appreciate a person to talk to about professional decisions.

How to make sure that your ideas are accepted? Ask difficult or nasty questions if need be. Risking confrontations with management is tricky and depends on your own advisory style. But if something is very important to discuss, it might be worth it. Continue building the relationship and trust with the director as that may change his attitude in the long run. It is a matter of trial and error to see what works. One school of management theory is the 'normative decision model'. This theories states that management styles may be stable, but you can take decisions to choose another style when the situation calls for such a style. You can stimulate the director to see situations in a certain way, point out the real situations and adapt the management style accordingly. It is important not to see it as a change in leadership style. Direct feedback on leadership (which may be the only style he knows) may cause resistence. Furthermore organizations have the right to develop in 'their own way'.

Some concrete strategies to successfully introduce ideas:
  • Try to enter the 'gossip' circuit and listen carefully to the frustrations. Try to link capacity building interventions to these frustrations.
  • Try to incorporate 'hobbies' in the proposals. For instance, if a manager is very interested in ICT, include an ICT component in a capacity building intervention.
  • Use informal talks, eg. in the car driving back from an even, on Friday afternoon, walking home together, etc. to introduce ideas and build a personal relationship.
  • Use formal staff meetings to inform everyone of your opinion and your work. In the end, you may be able to change the meeting culture a litte.
  • Use the room to manouvre that you have as an external advisor.

A danger of developing capacity building proposals for the organization, is that the proposal may be adopted, but without any critical reflection or ownership. To prevent this, it is good to try and let others in the organization take the lead and responsibility and remain in the advisor's position. Now what to do when a deadline is nearby and nobody takes enough responsibility?

Regarding the placement procedure: it is important that the advisory placement has a good start with clarity on the capacity development goals. And it is worthwhile to work fulltime with a small NGO as an advisor? It might be better for keeping the right advisory distance to work with a small group of 3-5 organizations.

Finally: capacity building is a slow process and you have to set your expectations accordingly, you can't change an organization entirely with a year or two. You have to go for small steps and be satisfied with small improvements.

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