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Building Capacity: The Necessary Ingredients to Create Change


​Have you ever done something that earlier in your life you would have thought impossible for you to do? If so, then you have personally experienced capacity building. Capacity is defined as the ability or power to do, experience or understand something. Unlike talent, capacity grows out of experience. It is built over time when the right ingredients are present: opportunity, perspective, and support.

Often when we think of capacity building we think of skill-building – like in the English proverb, "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Certainly building skills can be an important part of capacity building – but in my experience skill-building is only one element of building our capacity.

Before I share what I think is required to build capacity, let’s step back and note that capacity building happens at multiple levels. 

  • Individual – I started with a question about your individual capacity – and often capacity building is focused on building the capacity of individual people or leaders. 
  • Organizational – We can also work to build the capacity of organizations – investing in the infrastructure of organizations is a common example. 
  • Systems – Capacity building can also happen at a systems or movement level – enhancing the abilities of whole sectors or large scale networks.


In addition to new skills, we need new perspectives. If we stick with our fishing analogy, imagine you grew up in a community where fishing was something done only by elite fisherman whose families had been fishing for generations. Even if someone teaches you the skill of fishing – you might not see yourself as the “right kind of person” to become a fisherman. You might not even believe it was possible. In order for capacity to be built, we have to believe in the possibility of that new place we are striving to end up. If an organization believes it can take on a new service area – that belief or perspective is the first step to building the capacity to do so. Just like a movement will never create large-scale change, like ending homelessness for instance, without first asserting the belief and perspective that creating that change is possible.


Once we have the perspective that we could grow our capacity – we need the opportunity to engage in the work of capacity building. Again, capacity grows from experience, from getting to try new things, new approaches and build our abilities and understanding over time. During a time of tremendous change a sector or organization might need to build capacity, but if all its resources are dedicated to navigating the turbulence of that change it might not be able to create that opportunity. Often as individuals we compare ourselves to others and feel inadequate because we have less capacity in a certain area. In many cases, this inadequacy is not the result of lesser intelligence; it’s the result of a difference of opportunity. That person to whom you are comparing yourself has had more time and space to learn, to grow, to build their capacity.   


Building capacity – at all levels – requires an investment in learning. And when do we learn best?  When we are supported. Whether that means an organization’s board supporting staff to expand programming or the leadership of a coalition supporting community members to believe in themselves as change agents. We need both practical support, like funding, time, space and training – as well as social support, like encouragement, coaching and active listening.

Understanding the way capacity building operates reminds me why a strengths-based approach to our work is both logical and beneficial. So much is possible if we have the right ingredients and build our capacity to make it happen!

Kirsten Johnson is the Community Initiatives Manager in the Wilder Center for Communities. Building capacity is the end goal of her work in supporting collaborative community-driven projects that address complex challenges.