Sunday, January 13, 2008

Capacity Building for Networks – How can result-oriented attitudes be stimulated? How can a network be effectively strengthened?

Networking for development and capacity building programs for national and international networks have become common practice. Specific challenges occur when working with networks consisting of organizations and individuals. Especially networks that are based upon voluntary action are often less structured than professional organizations.

In this article one specific case study on capacity building for networks is being dealt with. The input is collected from discussions between advisors working in the area of capacity development in different countries in the world. This discussion group of professionals was established in order to learn from each other’s experiences and to generate best practices. Their cases are published on the web in order to share their knowledge and experiences with others.

Background and challenges of the case study
The specific network discussed in this article is an international network with coordinating offices per continent. The coordination office in Africa developed a capacity building project for the country network in Mozambique. This network consists of nine organizations and some individual members. They are all participating voluntarily, meaning that the network does not provide direct financial incentives. The goals of the capacity building project are strengthening the national network and improving the organizational capacity of the member organizations in Mozambique. An organizational development advisor was assigned to the country network.

When the project started the network was low profile and little activity took place concerning the network. During the first year of the project, activities of the advisor were focused on re-energizing the network and improving coordination between its members. Despite of efforts no real impact has been achieved. For example, even though the members of the network did agree on the need of a joint program, it has not yet been documented and formalized. During meetings responsibilities are assumed but the members hardly do what they promise. Others seem to accept this behaviour; no critical remarks are made towards each other. Now, after little more than a year, a small part of the group of members is motivated and active, some members are contributing if taken by hand, and some members are falling behind. The group has come to a point that the active ones want to move on, even when the less active are not on board.

Advocay meeting

In collaboration with one of the member NGOs, the capacity building adviser has been the one initiating and coordinating most of the activities, for example by calling and preparing meetings and drafting documents. At this point the adviser is withdrawing her coordination activities and will focus in the second and last year of her assignment on organizational capacity building of the individual member organizations. The international coordinating office is in the process of recruiting a country coordinator to support the country network, mainly in terms of fundraising. However, since this assignment will only last for one more year, questions are raised about how the network will continue. Will the coordination tasks be taken over by this country coordinator, or will the network take over itself?

The main questions to be answered in this case are: How to stimulate a result-oriented attitude within the network? How can be ensured that the capacity building program has long lasting effects?

Discussions and conclusions
A large part of the discussion between the advisers was about how to stimulate the network towards more result-oriented attitudes. Is it common to criticize each other? How about emphasising the “Who does What, How and When”? Can we change this culture of not complying with appointments and promises? The group did not answer these questions, but came to an interesting conclusion by tackling the problem from another side, based on experiences with a network in the Netherlands. This network of individuals fundraising for projects in Africa had a similar experience with volunteers that were contributing well and ones that were less active. This case showed that focusing efforts on people that were motivated and keeping the less active ones informed, instead of constantly criticizing their lack of commitment, increased the performance of the entire network, meaning that more funds were raised. By emphasising the positive and not the negative aspects the working atmosphere improved and more people became motivated.

Community leader meeting

Two other projects for network development in Africa show us very different approaches to capacity building. The philosophy for capacity building of the first network was very strict: all the initiative was left to the members. Full ownership and responsibility was in the hand of the members, but the network remained ‘low profile’ and the network was not really dynamic. In the other project the donor invested quite a lot of money to start up a secretariat and paid for a coordinator. This network was built top-down and initially there was no ownership amongst its members. Through doing activities, having a lot of dynamic meetings and enthusiasm, the network became valuable for the members and a critical mass was achieved. The challenge was to maintain the momentum and interest of the members, so that they were willing to continue the network even when the initial donor withdrew. In this case the members were willing to pay a membership fee and other donors were willing to invest in the network. The biggest hurdle for this network was to ensure that it was really based upon the needs and interests of its members.

These two approaches for capacity building raised quite some discussion. Appointing a coordinator and/or a secretariat is accompanied with the serious risk that the members become less active, expecting the coordinator to take care of everything. Another risk is that the coordination office grows into an independent organisation with its own agenda and priorities, undermining the needs of the network members and creating distance between the coordination office and the members. Therefore if it is decided to work with a coordinator and secretariat it is very important to pay attention to the ownership of the network by its members. It should also be closely monitored whether the network is operating regarding the members’ needs. Choosing a person with good facilitating skills for the role of coordinator is essential. And having the coordinator at the office of one of the members can prevent experiencing distance between the coordination office and members. Circulating the hosting of meetings amongst the members is also a way to involve everyone.

To get and keep the network going it is important to make sure the “owner(s)” of the network feels responsible for it and is willing to invest time and effort. Therefore questions should be asked like: Who started the network and why? Who are the stakeholders and what are their interests? In the case study the international coordination office is an important player, having created this network top-down. They might want the country network to function independently, but what do they do to make the network proceed?

It is difficult to generate general conclusions and recommendations from only one particular case study, but from the discussions the group of advisors came up with the following ideas:
- Build upon the energy and capacity that is already present amongst the members of the network in order to create a result-oriented and positive attitude. In other words focus on strengths, achievements, and the motivated and active ones instead of on weaknesses, failures, and the ones falling behind.
- Identify who are the actual ‘owners’ of the problem and make them responsible. Who initiated the network and who is really interested in having a network?
- Find a balance in capacity building activities. Creating momentum and quick results by a coordination office or an external advisor can be helpful, but has serious risks in terms of ownership and sustainability of the network. Continuously involving the members in defining the agenda of the network is necessary to create and maintain ownership amongst its members.

Petra Hofman

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