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Cohort Capacity Building: Is the Sector Ready?

Resource type: News

Stanford Social Innovation Review | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

by Anne Sherman

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of learning from four really smart and experienced people who participated in a panel discussion that TCC Group, a global management consulting firm, presented in New York City, called, “Casting A Wider Net: Effective and Affordable Cohort Capacity Building Strategies.”  The panel, moderated by TCC Group Senior Vice President Paul Connolly, included Fran Barrett, Director of Capacity Building, Atlantic Philanthropies; Molly Eagan, Senior Director of Business Operations, Planned Parenthood; Diane Oettinger-Myracle, Chief Learning Officer, Girl Scouts of the USA; and Peter York, Senior Vice President and Director of Research, TCC Group.

Like many of our colleagues doing this work, TCC Group has been providing capacity building using a cohort format for several years now (we define cohort capacity building broadly, basically working toward a shared goal with a group of nonprofits that share some set of characteristics, such as size, geographic location, or programmatic focus).  The idea for a panel on working with cohorts came out of some of Pete York’s recent research findings, which suggest that, in many cases, cohort capacity building is far more cost effective than other modalities, such as one-on-one consulting engagements.  When designed well, the blended approach that cohort capacity uses provides skills building, reinforcement, and the support of colleagues.  Collectively, these appear to be an effective strategy to help nonprofit executives become better leaders and managers. 

Several interesting ideas emerged from the conversation.  Particularly compelling to me were the panelists’ varying interpretations of the concept of a “cohort.”  The panelists all seemed to agree that we in our sector are doing ourselves an injustice by continuing to go it alone.  Some of the conversation felt familiar; such as the conversation about the intrinsic value of groups, and the particular power of peer exchange and support (which Fran Barrett also called “action learning”) to help nonprofit leaders gain new information, solve problems, and replenish their emotional reserves.  This, in turn, caused me to reflect about the tension between preparation and implementation.  It’s not “either/or,” but “both/and.”  For example, the individual nonprofit may plan individually (perhaps using a consultant or coach), but turn to the peer group to gain the knowledge and support needed to actually put the plan into practice.

The panelists also shared some interesting insights into what it means to create a group that has hundreds of members, potentially spanning thousands of miles? The Planned Parenthood network has 87 affiliates that operate 825 health centers.  The Girl Scouts has 100 councils and serves 2.4 million girls and over 900,000 adult volunteers.  This is cohort consulting at scale, and the panelists had some good insights to share about leveraging technology to work with groups. 

I also took away some newer insights about the power of groups.  There was a lot of lively discussion about the ever-increasing relevance of advocacy and the concept coalitions as another type of cohort that both offers a collective voice and can be a mutually reinforcing experience for participants.  Fran Barrett talked about the value of “natural systems,” looser cohorts.

The energy and wisdom on the panel was more than evident, and the audience’s interest was strong.  There was a sense that the cohort strategy remains a well-kept secret in the capacity building world.  Why is this the case?  Lack of funding, to be sure.  But I also sensed something else at play—that as the field of capacity building has professionalized, and as we learn more about what works, that perhaps we’ve come to believe that the value of our work is strongly correlated with its complexity and secret formulas.  Pete’s research also suggests that there is an important distinction to be made between preparing for capacity building—such as developing a strategic plan or conducting an assessment or writing a report, and implementation—taking the plan or the evaluation and actually putting ideas and recommendations into practice.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the research shows that while good preparation is necessary, it is by no means sufficient.  We’ve all heard about the “plan that sits on the shelf;” what do we as practitioners do to help our clients become more likely to take the tools and use them to build a better organization?

Alas, as we all know too well, there is no silver bullet.  However, reflecting on the wisdom shared at the panel, I keep thinking of Molly Eagan’s exhortation to the group:  “You know more than you think you do.  Don’t wait for the answer; just get started.”  It seems to me that it might be time to take some of the “technical” out of technical assistance?  What if, to paraphrase Diane Oettinger-Myracle from the Girl Scouts, it turned out that sometimes the best thing we can do is provide well-conceived, well-facilitated forums for people to actually sit and talk to each other?

Anne Sherman is the Associate Director at TCC Group. TCC Group is a national management consulting firm that serves nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporate community involvement programs.

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capacity building, Fran Barrett, TCC