By: Diana Harper
Building local capacity is one of the most commonly identified objectives of international development projects across diverse settings and technical areas. Donors, international partners, and local stakeholders alike recognize that without investing in local organizations, development will be neither effective nor sustainable. Yet, despite this agreement on the goal and an abundance of good intentions, many projects end without real and lasting local capacity growth—and in some cases, local capacity has even been diminished.
A better approach exists. Our experience has shown the power and potential of meaningful partnerships with local organizations for sustainable capacity development.
From 2016 to 2019, LINC implemented the Local Capacity Development Activity (LCDA) in Mexico with the generous support of USAID. The project sought to strengthen the capacity of a network of civil society organizations (CSOs) throughout Mexico as well as strengthen the capacity of local partner Fondo Unido – United Way Mexico (FUM, a local United Way Worldwide affiliate).
Nearing the end of the project, both LINC and FUM reflected that a real transformation had occurred.
- Following the collaborative development of a training course for CSO capacity development (the Diplomado), FUM took full ownership of the program. They demonstrated the future financial and technical sustainability of the Diplomado by leading six new cohorts of CSOs and establishing four new partnerships with new funders for its continued use.
- FUM achieved a 23% improvement in its overall capacity, with the important improvements measured in strategic vision and planning, financial administration, and external relations. Staff reflected that the organization had shifted its approach from opportunistic to strategic, enabling them to carry out their mission more confidently and effectively.
A variety of factors contributed to this success—most notably, the hard work and dedication of the Fondo Unido team. In addition, LINC’s intentional approaches to program design and implementation helped to create an environment in which FUM could thrive.
Based on the experience of LCDA as well as other projects around the world, we would like to offer a few reflections and advice for other practitioners seeking to learn from our experience.
Build on the foundation of existing relationships
LINC and FUM had a working relationship prior to the announcement and competition of the LCDA award. It is true that productive partnerships can and do emerge in response to a funding announcement or donor directive. However, in our experience, when organizations have established a mutually-beneficial way of working prior to the welcome but potentially disruptive force of outside funding, they are better able to navigate toward their shared goals together. This applies to partnerships between international and local partners, as well as among local organizations themselves.
Because LINC has an extensive network of local organizations who have been participants in our capacity development, research, and consulting activities, we are often able to start new projects in this way. In addition, we have used social network analysis and other methods to identify partners who are ideally suited to initiate and sustain development efforts.
Relationships are a key part of the success of any social change initiative, and in any country where we work, there is already an existing pattern of relationships in the local context. Taking this fact into account seriously during the design process offers excellent opportunities for aid efforts to reinforce and strengthen local capacity.
Allow local partners to drive the process
Too often, local partners serve as instruments for international agents to implement aid projects, rather than taking a real leadership role. Many forces contribute to these dynamics, including a tendency to value technical content expertise over local knowledge, as well as the high demands for accountability and administrative processes attached to donor funds.
At LINC, we believe that local actors are best suited to identify and solve local problems, and our role is to empower and support them in these efforts. In working with FUM, we took an open and collaborative approach to project design and implementation throughout the process, allowing FUM to set the objectives and reflect on their institutional needs. This approach does present challenges to projects seeking to prove fast results to donors after startup.
The design of LCDA built in time for establishing these processes, as well as used a strategy of mentorship (described further below). Another benefit was that the USAID funder was also committed to local leadership. In some cases, the path to progress was not linear or predictable, and they were willing to be patient without losing sight of the project’s ultimate goals.
Developing a Sustainable Plan for the Diplomado
The Diplomado was designed jointly by LINC and Fondo Unido, providing an early engagement point that increased applicability and local ownership of the material. Fondo Unido’s role in the creation and familiarity with the materials also allows them to update and adapt the materials based on the local context and future needs.
From the beginning, Fondo Unido established partnerships to provide the necessary physical space for the Diplomado sessions. This served as a useful platform for forging investment and support for the Diplomado as a whole from the private sector, government, academic, and community partners. In order to develop and track progress, LINC developed jointly with Fondo Unido a transfer plan that included a set of specific areas of competency and indicators. On a regular basis, we tracked progress toward these indicators with evidence to support progress ratings, specific achievements and observations, as well as areas for improvement and related action plans.
Adopt a mentoring and coaching approach
To support the continuous and sustainable development of FUM, a LINC team member serviced as their coach and mentor. He built strong relationships not only with FUM leadership, but throughout the staff. He was a consistent presence in their major activities and events, and worked at a desk in their office on a regular basis. Having a four-year project was necessary for this type of mentorship and coaching for institutional development.
What was particularly noteworthy about this arrangement was that the embedded team member was providing just-in-time assistance and application of learning. He did not take-over ownership and delivery of the task itself, which is a risk of embedding team members. His success was due to clearly and consistently aligning his support with the goal of building long-term institutional capacity, not providing quality control for short-term deliverables.
Having the support of a mentor during these four years of work, was beneficial to change from a reaction model to one of preparation and strategic planning. Daniel’s broad vision of the Fondo Unido – United Way Mexico’s work structure allowed a systemic development of the organization by working on specific points that served as a pivot of organizational change. The work and consulting process decreased in correlation to how the team’s operating capacity was increasing, thus leaving the installed capacity for a more efficient operation and with the ownership of the members of the organization.Fondo Unido – United Way Mexico
Use milestones to track and measure change
In partnership with FUM, we developed a set of milestones to track and measure change that would show interim progress toward the overall capacity development goals. Typically FUM could articulate the substance and direction of the milestone, and we provided assistance to make the idea measurable and practical. We placed an emphasis on measuring progress through actions and behaviors, not only knowledge.
In this process it is important to make the timeline for the milestones reasonable, as both implementors and donors are eager to see progress. It was important to realize that the achievement of the milestones was not simply for the sake of demonstrating the worth of our efforts, but in the true sense of monitoring to understand whether the activity was on track and whether adjustments were needed.
Provide space for experimentation and local self-realization
Finally, despite the hectic pace of development projects, we attempted to create space for experimentation, learning, and adaptation as driven by FUM. Though we have extensive experience in this type of capacity development work, every partner in every context is unique. As a result, while keeping in mind the overall project objectives and the best practices we’ve learned over the years, it was important to avoid rigidity.
Through collaborative project planning and implementation, we had to be willing to try new things and be open to new ideas. Innovation requires risk, which can be daunting in the aid landscape. Further, to support an environment of continuous improvement, we did not as the international partner simply identify challenges and opportunities for improvement and direct FUM to work on these areas.
We consciously created an environment through which they were able to analyze progress, reflect on deficiencies, and chart their own course forward. This process of self-realization is a key part of the sustainability of any local organization, serving them well beyond the implementation of an individual project.
FUM has been strengthened in the development of its organizational capacity, achieving the generation of alliances with various companies to strengthen work processes that in the relationship with LINC were discovered as an area of opportunity. Through strategic alliances with companies it has been possible to continue with the institutional strengthening process that was triggered by this alliance between Fondo Unido – United Way Mexico and LINC.Fondo Unido – United Way Mexico
In conclusion, we hope that these reflections on LINC and FUM’s partnership will foster continued dialogue on how to build and strengthen local partnerships for capacity development. As for Mexico, while the LCDA project has come to close, FUM continues to expand the work of the Diplomado and build the capacity of CSOs throughout the country.
Download the case study here.