Shifting Power and Influence in Our Society: Some Questions for Capacity Building

As Third Sector New England embarks on a deeper reflection upon what it means to shift power and influence in our society – our ultimate goal – we must also wrestle with the unique role and potential of capacity builders within that context. Given that capacity building refers to activities that improve and enhance a nonprofit organization's or coalition/collaborative's ability to achieve its mission, it is merely a tool and therefore morally neutral. The relevant question is whether we are using capacity building to perpetuate current paradigms of power or to shift power and influence in our society?

As TSNE MissionWorks embarks on a deeper reflection upon what it means to shift power and influence in our society – our ultimate goal – we must also wrestle with the unique role and potential of capacity builders within that context. Given that capacity building refers to activities that improve and enhance a nonprofit organization's or coalition/collaborative's ability to achieve its mission, it is merely a tool and therefore morally neutral. The relevant question is whether we are using capacity building to perpetuate current paradigms of power or to shift power and influence in our society?

If we are not intentionally focused on shifting power and influence, then we are – by default – perpetuating current paradigms of power.

At TSNE, all of our programs seek to engage with constituents in the context of power-shifting. The Inclusion Initiative, the grantmaking program of TSNE, for example, has tackled this question head on and determined that it will focus on supporting collaborative, community-led solutions to solving the persistent and systemic problems that perpetuate poverty and inequality in our region. Other TSNE programs operationalize our long term goal of shifting power in different ways based on their relationships with their primary constituents.

As part of our consulting and executive transitions work we recently convened all our consultants (staff and affiliate) for a two day exploration of cultural competency. The training is part of our ongoing work to integrate an action-learning and reflection practice in order to deepen our ability to partner with organizations to shift minds, paradigms and systems.

It is our commitment, once selected as consultants or capacity building partners, to meet the organization where it is, to raise questions and to surface, via facilitation, the patterns - and resulting questions - inherent within organizational behavior. In some cases this means working with the all-white board of an organization that predominantly serves people of color to determine who the next executive director will be. In other cases, it may mean supporting an issue-specific organization become one that integrates intersectionality as part of its movement building strategy. In yet another case, it may mean more deeply exploring what it means to be an anti-racist organization, and how this translates into organizational policies and practices. Of course, to be able to facilitate this work, the consultant must be aware of their own privilege and oppression within a historical context and use this self-awareness in partnership with the organization to advance a collective conversation.

For organizations seeking a deeper level of work, some key questions to explore as you select a capacity building partner: (reference for these questions are pg 3 and pg 23 of the Cultural Competency in Capacity Building Monograph by Satterwhite/Fernandopulle – Compasspoint)

  • What is the capacity building partner's awareness of their own cultural location across various identity domains (race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability….)?
  • Has the capacity building partner demonstrated a high degree of skill in cross cultural communication?
  • Does the capacity building partner have strong facilitation skills to support the team and the process – especially in confusing times?
  • What is the capacity building partner's grounding in dynamics of oppression?
  • How has the capacity building partner demonstrated innovation and adaptability in their work?
  • How does the capacity building partner value listening and learning from the community, working with the community to co-design the change strategy, facilitating action and building capacity for social transformation?

We are all on this journey together. We are each called to the nonprofit sector because of the promise it offers us: to co-create the world as the way we think it should be – for all of us. We look forward to learning from our fellow journeyers – including those who have gone before us and those yet to come. Shifting power and influence in our society requires nothing less of us.

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