While there are many definitions of capacity, capacity building, and a capacity building mindset, the following definitions capture the key ideas.
"Capacity is the combined influence of a community's commitment, resources, and skills that can be deployed to build on community strengths, address community issues, and seize community opportunities" (Rural Economic Policy Program, 1996, p. 11).
Capacity building does not just happen. It is developed through "effort, will, initiative, and leadership" (Rural Economic Policy Program, 1996, p. 2). Capacity building is an intentional and strategic commitment to collaborate with community partners in order to strengthen confidence, increase knowledge, expand resources, and build skills so that they might be empowered to catalyze change in their own communities.
Capacity building mindset
A capacity building mindset identifies community strengths and builds upon them; values local community knowledge as well as expert knowledge; seeks long term solutions to the underlying causes of problems (not just the symptoms); and affirms the value of shared leadership, shared resources, and reciprocal learning as a way of sustaining change for the long term.
Other Important Characteristics
In addition to the definitions, capacity building has several distinctive characteristics that make it different from other approaches to community work:
- The capacity building mindset acknowledges variations in initial capacity and recognizes
the possibility for improvement. All individuals, teams, organizations, and communities
have capacity—even those that seem to be the weakest. Similarly, all individuals,
teams, organizations, and communities have the potential to develop more capacity—even
those that seem to be the strongest.
- Capacity building may take place at different levels—individual, team, organization,
community, or society. Often capacity building activities at one of those levels strengthen
capacity on other levels. For example, an individual may attend a workshop to learn
about a way to organize meetings more efficiently (individual level). When that individual
brings new knowledge to her team and the team adopts the more efficient ways to organize
meetings, the team's capacity increases as well (team level). Once the team starts
working more effectively during meetings, the organization's overall success increases
- Capacity is gained in degrees. Sometimes capacity grows very slowly; other times quite rapidly. The rate at which capacity is built depends on the community's existing capacities and its readiness. Capacity building is also a dynamic process. Changes in the internal or external environment might cause capacity to diminish or require new capacities to be strengthened. As a result, capacity building is an on-going process.
Orientation at Riverfront
Alicia took the bus down to the waterfront, found their second floor offices, and met with Carlos, the executive director, and Zoe, the communications and public relations director. They gave her a tour around the place. Carlos told her how much they really appreciated what the service-learning students had done for them the past three years.
After about a half hour, Carlos excused himself and Zoe continued the orientation with Alicia. Zoe gave Alicia an overview of her main project—writing new content for their webpage and posting it to the web. Zoe showed Alicia where the last service-learning student had left off and said, "Without you students, we'd be lost. We have no idea how to keep our own webpages updated ourselves. Sometimes we have breaking news to post but have to wait until the students come in to get it on our page. We really appreciate all you do."
On the bus ride back to campus, Alicia thought more about Zoe's comment. What would happen if there weren't a continuing flow of service-learning students for the webpage updates? Would it be possible for me to help write content for the new webpages and, at the same time, work with people at Riverfront so that they could learn how to do simple webpage updates themselves?
Have you been involved in community work where the main goal was to do something for
your community partner? What do you think happened after you left your placement?
Could your work have continued without you?
If you have had experiences working with a community partner, hopefully you were able to help work on something that would continue even after you left. Remember, capacity building is an ongoing process. The goal is to collaborate with community partners to develop sustainable initiatives.