Getting serious about building local capacity for conservation success


Gladys Warigia Njoroge and Jessie Davie


Saving the planet requires better partnerships to strengthen local organizations.

The world has finally woken up to the important role that Indigenous people and local communities play in protecting our planet. From the adoption of the loss and damage fund at COP27 to the billions of dollars being promised to support more local conservation efforts, at last there is recognition that locally-rooted organizations and efforts are essential to keeping our climate, communities, and wild spaces healthy and intact. We couldn’t be more excited for this rising tide of support for talented local and grassroots environmental leaders.

But we also know all too well the dire consequences that can come when money gets thrown at small organizations and they’re not prepared for it. Organizations get spread too thin, leaders burn out, donors become frustrated and disheartened, and the original vision is lost in the chaos. As important as big financial pledges are for the environment, we must now think beyond just financing. While ‘building capacity’ is a widely used bit of development-industry jargon, it’s well past time to take seriously the approaches that are needed to really strengthen local and grassroots organizations and enable them to capitalize on their potential. Capacity building isn’t new here. So why isn’t capacity yet built?

Sure, most people working at local organizations have attended donor-‘encouraged’ 3-4 day ‘capacity building’ workshops on Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) or communications or financial management at some point in their tenure. But, as recent research of African conservation organizations revealed, this kind of conventional capacity building doesn’t usually take an individual or organization into account. Rather it often is used as a risk mitigation device by funders and international NGOs to enhance compliance with contractual obligations and, thus tends to be a ‘one-size-fits-all,’ short-term generic training or intervention that doesn’t meet the real needs of the organizations. Conventional capacity building usually stops after a single intervention – the delivery of a strategic plan or an M&E training – carried out by a consultant with little context of the area in which an organization works and lacks a holistic view of an organization’s needs and what is needed to fulfil them.

Having sat through many of these workshops ourselves, we know first-hand that this approach doesn’t develop organizations in the way we need them to meet this potential new injection of funds and, well, to help save our planet.

Fortunately, we’ve seen many examples where organizations thrive with big increases in funding – and we know with the right support, local organizations truly are our key to global environmental and social challenges. But to adequately prepare these organizations, we need to do capacity building differently and better, so that organizations can stand the test of time and bring about real change that they own and are driving forward.

One of us has been on the supporting side of organizational development, working for Maliasili, the other on the receiving end, working for the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA). But we’ve both been the ‘doers’ of organizational development and that’s one of the tricks. Real organizational development takes time, work, and even soul-searching from all parties involved. It can’t be something that’s delivered; it has to be an inclusive and iterative process, long-term, customized, and it must be driven by an organization’s own desire to improve and grow. Here we share lessons from our own experiences in what it takes to truly develop organizations for them to thrive and reach their full potential.

Organizational development is a journey

There are many different books and articles published on how to change organizational behaviours and habits. While strategies might vary, there tends to be at least one common understanding: change doesn’t happen overnight. The same goes for organizational development. What at the outset seems like the problem, may actually be just a symptom of a much bigger problem. For example, one of our first pieces of work together was to help KWCA develop an organized annual plan. We created a clearly structured work plan aligned with their strategy, but that didn’t solve their much bigger problems of overstretch, limited funding, and understaffing. Those challenges couldn’t be solved with a spreadsheet. Instead, we developed a plan to work through each of those other areas together. Most organizational development support ends when the assignment ends, but that doesn’t actually help the organization grow.

Walk it together with trust

To really get to the heart of where an organization is struggling, leadership needs to get vulnerable. They need to take a hard look at their own strengths and weaknesses, and analyze their decisions, systems, actions, and behaviours. Leaders need to be open about where they’re struggling, where they’ve made mistakes, and where they’re organizations need help – that’s not easy. Just as one might struggle to meet with a series of different therapists, constantly getting vulnerable with new consultants is unlikely going to happen. Building trust is essential to effective organizational development support, and this requires work and investment from both parties involved. Establishing long-term partnerships, where the organizational development practitioner understands the context, history, changes, and challenges of an organization and invests in the overall growth not just the immediate problem, will have much greater outcomes than a series of different supporters coming in to ‘fix’ problems only when they arise.

At KWCA we’ve seen too many partners get stuck where they’re at because the capacity-building support was done for them rather than with them. Sure, an organization might now have a human resources manual and strategic plan, but if they weren’t involved in developing those resources, they lack meaning and purpose and don’t contribute to any form of growth or long-term change.

Don’t overcomplicate it

Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned is that organizational development should not be made more complicated than it needs to be. We’ve seen too many complex (and expensive) strategies and systems get developed and quickly shelved because they’re not actually practical to implement. Jargon has long been exposed for its pretentiousness. Now it’s time to raise the curtain on organizational development methodologies and approaches. NGOs face enough day-to-day challenges. They need support that makes their work and lives easier, not more complicated. For example, Maliasili has a partner that uses a 2-page communications strategy to guide their efforts, and they’ve brought on new donors and partners during this time.

Context matters

What works for the health or education fields may not necessarily work for the conservation space. Capacity-building efforts should be contextualized to the field and organization in which it’s being applied. Certainly, we can draw on best practices from the organizational development space, but to truly grow an organization so they can perform their best, understanding what they do matters.

Capacity building should ‘pay it forward’

The challenges we face will require an all-hands-on-deck approach. So, it’s critical that all efforts – all organizations – are as effective and strong as they can be. As organizations develop, they can bring others along with them. For example, one of Maliasili’s partners in Tanzania has adapted our tools and approaches to use with grassroots organizations that manage community conservation areas. They’ve grown themselves and are now investing in growing others, the result being that these are the most professionally run community conservation areas in the country, equipped with business plans and tourism agreements. Similarly, KWCA is helping our member organizations grow so they can take on more funding and achieve more impact. This is the ripple effect, where targeted, long-term support that truly gets internalized by an organization can then spread across a landscape of other important actors.

The environmental field doesn’t have another 15 years to talk about capacity building. It’s time to change the approach so that great local and grassroots organizations in Africa and beyond can truly thrive.

Gladys Warigia Njoroge is the Policy Coordinator for the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA). Jessie Davie is Maliasili’s Director of Communications & Learning.

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We the Board of Trustees of Global disaster management and environmental mitigation foundation are please to be associated with you, and partnership is the way forward.

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