Building your cultural capacity for capacity building

A couple of weeks ago we co-facilitated the first of the Co-ops UK ‘Working with Conflict’ workshops in Manchester, part of an innovative and responsive training programme commissioned by Co-ops UK and being provided by experienced training co-ops across the country. Rhizome is leading on the working with conflict workshops and we’d opted to pitch the training at the level of cultural, attitudinal and behavioural change, rather than just skills building. Skills building is important, but to us changing attitudes and behaviour is where the real, solid and effective change happens.

It was heartening to find that many of the coops attending were very aware of the impact of organisational culture on their ability to function effectively. That’s not something you can always assume – historically cooperative development and support was aimed at structural issues such as finance, legal frameworks and marketing. In this training we gave the participants space to share their struggles and their successes in terms of avoiding, controlling or turning round cultures of conflict. And there were lots of examples of coops doing just that. One coop shared that they now prioritised recruiting for the ability and attitudes to co-operate, not for skills to do the tasks of the business.

This awareness and willingness to work on changing organisational culture isn’t always so easy to find. Through other work we’ve done recently we’ve had reason to ponder the nature of capacity building as an act of growing the culture of activism. Our work often focuses specifically on growing and supporting networks of grassroots activists (and not just growing the numbers of activists, levels of skill, amount of activity or any of the other criteria by which capacity building success are often measured).

Discussing one organisation’s plan to build up an activist network was disappointing. What they said they wanted turned out to be very different from what they’ve ended up going with. In Rhizome we’ve seen this same, flawed, approach so many times – so many assumptions that demonstrate an underlying culture of the organisation which conflicts with their stated aims and plans.

Of course many of us don’t always live up to our aims – none of us are perfect. But to thrive we need to recognise that an organisation’s values and impact are not defined just by their mission statements, their stated aims, but by the attitudes and behaviours of the organisation as a whole, as well as those of the individuals in it. And where there is a substantial difference between what we say and what we do, it fundamentally dilutes our message, compromises our abilities, weakens our capacity. Ultimately it hobbles the organisation and risks its future.

If you want to see the gap between your rhetoric and your reality – check out your work against the Ladder of Citizen’s Participation. Sherry Arnstein wrote:

“There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process… participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.”

Many of us working for social change might read that and heartily agree that that’s exactly what corporations, politicians and states do. We may be less inclined to notice when NGOs do the same through their own ‘democratic’ processes, or when ‘grassroots’ networks do the same through informal hierarchies and unacknowledged oppressive behaviour.

If you want to have a lasting effect then social change organisations need to be honest about which rung of the ladder they aspire to, and which they currently occupy. Our experience is that unless this is firmly out in the open, and groups are actively working towards integrating the rhetoric and the reality, the level of participation will almost always slip downward as other factors assert themselves at the cost of empowerment.

At Rhizome we feel that relating to or working in an organisation or network is all in the attitude. And that attitude needs to be nurtured and held throughout the organisation – in other words be part of the organisation’s culture. It’s not sufficient for a team of paid or voluntary capacity builders to have the right attitudes, if they don’t have the support of the wider organisation, or the power to make organisation-wide change. The right attitude to engagement needs to be part of your organisational culture from top to bottom. Otherwise you risk being seen as milking the networks for more action, more funds, more weight to your campaign, and ultimately your capacity and support will wither.

So if you’re building or supporting an activist network, some of the ways in which a culture of participation and empowerment might demonstrate themselves in your capacity building programme include:

  • Make involving staff realistic and genuine. There’s often an ideal of all staff taking a part in the life of the network through some kind of support or mentoring role, and that’s a laudable way to ensure that the network becomes central to the whole organisation. However, it’s rarely in every staff member’s job description, it’s unlikely to have been a consideration in their recruitment and in reality, they may not have the interest or relevant skills. If you’re going to do this you need to do it properly – check, assess and train them and integrate it properly into the roles.

  • Whatever you’re planning needs enough lead in time. It doesn’t matter how urgent the campaign, the emphasis is on you to get your act together – strategise and plan appropriately, don’t dump unworkably short project plans on your volunteer networks. There’s your own internal bureaucracy, plus giving your activists a genuine chance to contribute, co design and participate at a pace that works for them – which, if they’re volunteers, may be a lot slower than you’d like. Working with the conflicts will take time. Whatever lead in time you were thinking of, double it, and then double it again.

  • Involve activists and potential activists from the start. Check out even your most basic assumptions (that they want a network / that a network will work for this organisation etc) and keep them involved. And by ‘them’, I don’ t mean just the easy to relate to/ ‘onside’ activists. You need to talk to the ‘hard to reach’ and the ‘awkward squad’ as well as the potential & as yet unreached activists. And whilst you’re talking to them, try to understand them better. You might find that they’re not so hard to reach, or so awkward after all.

  • Consider that the networks might be able to be more self-supporting than you first think. Whilst setting up and running networks can be time-consuming and difficult from a distance, if you’re willing to trust people and cede some/all control, supporting people to do it themselves allows you to focus your resources and empowers the networks.

  • Commit to a proper programme of mentoring and training. Give it time, proper resources, and look for depth as well as breadth. Plan to see how it can be made self-supporting; a mentoring programme that turns out new mentors, a training programme that builds the skills and attitudes needed to train others.

  • Don’t just assume it’s just the network folk that need training. Your staff and organisational culture needs to be supported and developed. Training them is a fast and effective way of doing this.

The bottom line is that there’s a need to build the cultural capacity of your organisation for change, which allows you to accept and celebrate diversity, feel safe devolving some or all power to your activists, and co-produce and co-design projects, materials, strategies, campaigns. That needs to be replicated in (and learnt from) the network itself. Without building this cultural capacity no amount of people, funds, webspace, petitions, hashtags or events will build you a genuinely resilient and effective network.

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