Elements of capacity building

Two American authors (Light and Hubbard) argue that there are four key elements that shape the ultimate success of a capacity building project:

The first key to thinking about how to approach capacity building is to recognise that these four elements are all inter-related. Although the desired outcome should determine the change strategy, which informs who should champion the effort and how much time and money it requires, in practice all four are in a dynamic relationship. The resources available will affect the choice of outcome and the champion may influence the chosen change strategy.

Elements of capacity building

The desired outcomes

The desired outcomes of capacity building projects in this research fell into four categories:

Change Strategies

The second of the four key elements of capacity building was the change strategy.

The approach organisations take to capacity building was seen as critical to its overall success. ‘Discerning what kind of change strategy is likely to be most effective at any given time is a crucial skill for both nonprofit leaders and capacity building funders alike’.

However, there is no straightforward methodology for moving from the analysis of the problem to the creation of an appropriate change strategy. Heterogeneity is a defining characteristic of the nonprofit sector, so it is hardly surprising to discover that it is difficult to generalise about effective intervention points and capacity building strategies.

The temptation is to conclude from any analysis of capacity that many components require attention and to attempt to address them all. However, organisations have limited capacity to build capacity. The constraints are usually a combination of senior management time and money. So the leadership has to make tough choices about the amount of capacity building that the organisation can sustain and how to allocate these critical capacity building resources.

Managers acknowledge that sustainable development usually requires continuous effort over a period of time to change people’s habits and behaviour and to create new ways of working. There is an ever-present danger of putting insufficient effort into building each component of capacity. Effort spread too thinly over too many fronts, may result in none being advanced in a significant and sustainable way.


The third key element of a capacity building programme is the need for a champion. One or more people have to have the capacity building initiative at the top of their agenda, be planning the overall approach, driving the implementation timetable and promoting it to everyone affected.

One of the reasons why capacity building fails is the lack of a champion who has the skills, time and resources to make a success of the initiative. All capacity building initiatives ultimately have to become embedded into the organisation‘s culture – its way of doing things – and this requires the sustained effort and dedication that is best provided by a champion .


The fourth key element is resources. According to the Brooking‘s Institution Nonprofit Effectiveness Project around one third is supported by external funding, one third from organisation‘s own resources and one third used a combination of both.

Research into a sample of funders that have capacity building programmes shows that ‘high’ resources funders spent an average of just under $200,000 per organisation and ‘low’ resource funders spent an average of $27,500 per organisation.

One of the consequences of larger and longer term capacity building funding is that funders tend to be in regular contact with recipients – often talking on a weekly basis. This provides external pressure to maintain the momentum of the initiative and an on-going source of advice and support.

Based on Paul Light and Elizabeth Hubbard, The Capacity Building Challenge, Washington, Brookings Institution, 2002.










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