Ideas for using the Core Concept section

Summary of the Core Concepts

The material in this section can be used in several ways, for example:

A summary overview of the whole section is helpful when you:

  • Have limited time and need to get the main ideas presented without working on any of them in detail
  • Want to establish a framework of the bigger picture of current thinking before going into a specific area of application, e.g. a workshop on capacity development in a specific context, such as a sector or an organisation
  • Want to start with an overview of the core concepts as a lead into more detailed work on different dimensions or themes of capacity development
  • Need an exercise at the end of a workshop to pull together the participants’ ideas and outputs so they can assess how their ideas fit with the trends in current understanding

Using the different parts of the section individually is helpful for:

  • Illustrating the details of each of the other sections in the materials – e.g. if you are working on understanding what capacity is, then information on the Levels and Types will help you to expand the discussion
  • Making linkages between different aspects of capacity and capacity development in order to build up a comprehensive picture, rather like building blocks

Capacity: what is it?

For participant groups to get a good understanding of capacity they need to move from the general to the specific of their areas of work. The definitions given by development agencies are generally helpful as an overall guide and starting point but they do not provide guidance about how to apply or define capacity for specific contexts, whether it is for individuals, teams and departments, organisations, systems, networks or partnerships. In order to do that you can use any or all of the following questions and exercises for whole or small group work, as appropriate to the overall purpose and set up of the workshop.

Start the group looking at the general ideas, before moving to specific application to their circumstances. Ask deepening questions such as:

  • How would you describe the main ideas that are coming across in these definitions?
  • Which words and phrases stand out as being really important for your organisation and context? Which words or phrases are not important, and why?
  • Do any of these definitions really fit to your context?
    • If yes, explain why you choose that one and how it applies.
    • If no, explain why none of them work for your context.
  • In what ways does this fit with or change your previous thinking about how capacity is defined?

After you have considered the general definitions, the participants might find it useful to try to create one that fits specifically to their own work and circumstances.

Example of small group exercise instructions:

1. Decide on who or what you want to define capacity for, e.g. yourself, a team, your department, organisation or sector, or maybe a network or partnership.

2. Visualise what ‘living’ capacity would look like for those people or groups – how would they function? What would they achieve?

3. Complete the sentence ‘For (insert who or whatever you have chosen) capacity is…’ Your answer should clearly state:

  • Who needs it? (Capacity for who?)
  • The purpose of having this capacity – why it is needed? (Capacity for why?), and
  • What do people need to be able to do (soft and hard capacities) in order to fulfil the purpose? (Capacity for what?)

Example: For the planning department capacity is the ability to produce timely and actionable plans that appropriately link ministry strategy, policies and priorities with relevant operational needs, resources and implementing conditions.

4. Small groups share their ideas with each other and discuss together to reach a shared definition.

If time allows it is helpful to take this exercise further in either or both of the following ways:

5. Repeat the exercise for different groups or levels to create a more comprehensive picture of the system you work in and how all the component parts link together. This can be for the whole organisation or sector in which you work. For example, look at different departments to build up an overview definition for the whole ministry.

6. When you have defined what capacity means in terms of external purpose i.e. ‘for why?’ think about what internal capacities are needed to realise that by going more deeply into the ‘for what?’ question. Don’t forget to consider both hard and soft capacities.

Capacity development

Whole group discussions and small group exercises can be organised under three different headings:

  • Understanding the models and approaches
  • Applying the models and approaches
  • Creating a model to fit your context

Understanding the models and approaches

Examples of questions to guide discussions and exercises

  • What are the main ideas coming across about capacity development? Do some key words and phrases stand out as being really important?
  • What are the interesting similarities and differences between the definitions used by different agencies?
  • Why do you think there are so many different models?
    • What are the advantages and disadvantages of different agencies developing their own model and approach?
    • Are they consistent in addressing all the dimensions of capacity – levels, types, etc.?
    • Why do you think it is that so many of these definitions seem to come from northern countries or donors?
    • What assumptions about capacity and change appear to be underpinning the models?
    • What does this mean in terms of the applicability of the concepts in your country or context?
  • Do some reading about theories of change and see if and how they fit with the models.

One of the best known theories of change comes from the Aspen Institute which defines theory of change as follows: “At its most basic, a theory of change explains how a group of early and intermediate accomplishments sets the stage for producing long-range results.”

The theory of change model espoused by the Aspen Institute includes the following:

  1. A pathway of change that illustrates the relationship between a variety of outcomes that are each thought of as preconditions of the long-term goal.
  2. Indicators that are defined to be specific enough to measure success.
  3. Interventions that are used to bring about each of the preconditions on the pathway, and at each step of the pathway.
  4. Assumptions that explain why the whole theory makes sense!

The ‘How to define and map a change process’ page also gives some guidance for how to do this, and some more helpful references about theories of change.

Applying the models and approaches

Examples of questions to guide discussions

  • Which ideas resonate for your organisation and context? Which ideas are not important, and why?
  • In what ways do any of these ideas add value to the way capacity development has been conceived and practiced in your context?

Example of an exercise to explore application


Maybe you don’t have any choice about which model you and your organisation are working with, because others have already made that choice linked to specific programmes and projects supported by different donors. Often it feels like no one is working with a specific model because there doesn’t seem to be a clear strategy or approach behind the activities, so they don’t seem to hang together in any logical way. But you can choose which model you like best to help you understand the core concepts of capacity development as it applies to your needs. Before you can see what fits your context you first need to understand it in terms of capacity development.

  1. First think about what is really important in your context (see the relevance of culture and context in the Core Concept section. What factors are relevant to how capacity is understood and how it can be developed in your culture and the specific organisation or system that you are concerned with?
  2. With your colleagues chose one or more of the models and analyse it/them for relevance and usefulness to apply to your context.
    OR: Create some criteria for screening for relevance and use them to analyse some or all of the models.

Creating a model to fit your context

Guidance for steps in a process to develop your own model:

If you and your colleagues want to think about formulating a model to fit your context and needs, then there are two questions to be answered as preparation.

  • Which theory of change do you feel is most appropriate for your context? Your answer should have clear links with the way you approach capacity development. However, you might also need to take into consideration how to maintain coherence with the approaches used by other important actors such as your donors.
  • How you conceptualize organisations, their dynamics and relationships with the environment? Some concepts in current use are organizations as: machines; networked social organisms; families or communities; organically fitting with their environment; and, political arenas. How you understand your organisation influences very much how you look at related capacity development issues.

When you have that background thinking in place you can start to think about what is really important in your context.

  • What are the development goals to which this capacity development framework needs to contribute?
  • At which levels do you need to work? Especially consider what will need to be addressed in the enabling environment?
  • What cross cutting issues are important?
  • What types of capacity are most important to achieve the development goals?
  • What themes for application would work – either as areas of need or as drivers of change?

Then you can look at the other models and use them as a guide, either for how they are structured or their content. You can take what you like from different models and bring them together to create your own. For example you might like the definitions of capacities from one, but the different entry points from another, and the cross cutting themes from yet another. This might be:

  • Empowerment as the central idea
  • A four level framework for entry points because you work at sector level so that is the primary level for your interventions and you work with others in relation to that
  • A mixture of core areas of application that are drivers of change, like good governance, leadership and knowledge management
  • Linked to this a range of hard and soft capacities that are essential to achieving the development goal

Try to create something visual, a diagram or flow chart, to show how your ideas would link together to create a framework for how you approach capacity development activities.

Towards a shared understanding about the principles and values of capacity development

Some of the information in this section might not be helpful or relevant for all participants, so you would need to think carefully about whether or not to take time for discussion or exercises on these subjects. In general practitioners are primarily concerned with getting information and skills around the practical aspects of doing capacity development so they would likely not want to spend time on the issues that are not directly related to their everyday practice. However, many people are currently very concerned about how to deal with the challenges of defining and measuring capacity development results. The questions and exercise offered below can work at an overview level. There are some ‘How to…’ pages for those who need to go deeper.

Examples of questions for discussion

  • What are the most important principles and values that need to be agreed among all development actors?
  • What area the advantages and disadvantages of trying to agree a common understanding?
  • What will help you and those you work with agree a common language that reflects a shared understanding about capacity development?

Example of an exercise to explore the challenges of capacity results

  • Chose a capacity development initiative that you are familiar with – preferably one with which you are directly involved
  • Identify the capacity results that the initiative is designed to achieve. These capacity results should be: related to a development goal; cover hard and soft capacities at different levels; and, possibly relate to different themes for application
  • Make two lists:
    • The results that can be defined and measured through a results based management approach, e.g. technical knowledge and skills, systems development and implementation, and so on
    • The results that cannot easily fit into a results-based management approach e.g. developing leadership skills at middle manager level, or the willingness and ability or a department to accept and implement major changes in their work, or the ability of local leadership to negotiate and resolve difficult vested interests that have resulted in conflict
  • For each result in the second list try to identify at least one indicator and one way to measure it. Be creative in your thinking and move away from output and number based measurements to think about qualitative processes like ‘Stories of most significant change’ and ‘action learning’ methods.

Next section: Examples of session plans for workshops