Actually, it was my capacity that needed to be built

“Capacity building” has been in every job description or programmatic strategy of every international aid and philanthropic organization with which I’ve worked over the past 15 years. In some form or another, I’ve led, funded, or facilitated workshops, exchange visits, trainings intended to enhance the knowledge and skills of people who live in poor countries. 

Along the way, as an “expat” aid worker, as a grantmaker, as a manager and a communicator, I’ve had my capacity built too.

For this to occur, I have not attended any trainings or conferences, though I’ve been to countless conferences and trainings.

I’ve not received any formal “mentoring,” though I’ve had many mentors.

No exchange visits for me, though I’ve been on my share of “site” visits.

In fact, very little has been for the intended purpose of building my capacity. Sure, there’s been “staff development” opportunities (supposedly), but never was it discussed, or even implied, that my capacity needed to be built.

But wow, it did.

Given that I was born in a so-called “modern” society, my capacity has rarely been at question. It’s assumed I have inherent skills, knowledge, abilities and resources it since I’m not from a “traditional” society.

But when I think back to that 19-year-old university student, who on her first trip out of the United States, went to volunteer at an orphanage…wow, talk about someone who needed her capacity built.

When I think back to that budding aid worker, newly arrived from her Masters program, ready to use all that development “expertise,” only to find that many of her Zimbabwean colleagues had a Masters of Development too, and way more experience…wow, did her capacity need to be built.

All along my career, there have been big, bold examples of ineptitude and small moments of self-doubt. And they didn’t subside as I gained more experience. Rather they multiplied in many ways. Doing things “the way they’d always been done” in international grantmaking actually wasn’t working for anyone.

And as I supported more and more effective indigenous-led organizations, I saw the vision, structure, and impact they were having – with or without funding or support from outsiders like me. Rather than focusing on what wasn’t there, I came to appreciate the inherent strengths of local leaders: their deep contextual knowledge, embeddedness within the community, ingenuity in stretching resources, and the ability to operate in a responsive manner to local needs.

And I realized, over and over again, that I needed to build my capacity to support these effective, inspiring, and visionary leaders if I was going to be a vital part of supporting bottom-up development, global social justice, grassroots-driven social change. I needed more than cultural competence, I needed cultural humility. I needed to know how to build authentic and more equal partnerships with community-based organizations. I needed to know how to form and foster networks of learning, mutual support, and solidarity.

So how does one do that?

The IDEX Academy is one way. IDEX’s grantmaking work has been deeply embedded in connecting people with grassroots leaders and innovations for over 30 years. And every year we bring together a group of people – most importantly, our partners from the Global South – to address the capacity challenges of those with access to financial resources – the very challenges I’ve struggled to overcome throughout my career. 

Through the Academy, IDEX wants to help all of us usher in a new era of international learning and exchange built on principles of collaboration, cooperation, and mutual sharing, rather than imported ideas and expertise. As IDEX elder and Academy faculty, Dr. Mutombo Mpanya of Sonoma State University and The California Institute Of Integral Studies, shares:

“The work of [global development] requires that people have some kind of personal transformation and change in their conception of the ‘third world’ in order to be effective agents of change.”

So join us! Get your capacity built on how we can help create more dignity, equity, and justice for the world’s most marginalized people and become a part of a community of change-makers who dare to do things differently!


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Comment by Autry Haynes on September 29, 2015 at 10:09am

Thank you Jennifer and Rituu (^_^)...communities know what they want and facilitators help reveal the strengths and capacity to journey themselves toward common dreams. Facilitators understand too, that the journey will take time and in addition to accompaniment, nurturing is essential, since the journey is influenced by many factors such as social and spiritual context, political and economic contexts, cultural, legal, environmental, peer pressure even resources play a is dynamic and the journey takes many many nights....

Comment by Rituu B. Nanda on September 28, 2015 at 6:55pm

I love this piece Jennifer! Thank you for posting.What I have learned in my work with communities that we do not need to take the burden of 'doing good'. Communities know what is best for them and may have forgotten that they have the capacity to address their issues. Role of external facilitators is to reveal this capacity and accompany the communities in this journey. Therefore challenge is not working with communities but the mindset of NGOs who struggle to let go...


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