The Future of Capacity-Building is Collaborative

What is the most effective way to increase capacity through training? Collaborative learning!

What do we mean by collaborative? Really, the model hinges on a peer-based learning model instead of a more traditional expert-led presentation, driven by the following pedagogical priorities:

  • Interactive discussions (vs. passive listening)
  • Opportunities for problem-solving (vs. theoretical discussions)
  • Mix of both formal and informal learning periods
  • Experiential learning and hands-on activities with direct work connects
  • Supplemental supportive learning services beyond regular “class time;” this could be “office hours” with a facilitator or expert, peer project work, or smaller discussion groups
  • Intentional creation of a learning community where everyone’s experience and expertise is both valued and engaged

When training participants are brought inside the training – when they both learn and teach – then everyone gets smarter. In collaborative trainings, the power dynamic equalizes between teacher and student, learning becomes participatory and therefore more engaging, and participants learn kinesthetically through acting and doing rather than passive listening.

Choosing to create a collaborative learning environment won’t take you all the way there, unfortunately. In order to effectively develop a collaborative capacity building program, you need to address some key factors:

  1. Who has the knowledge?
  2. Who participates?
  3. What cultural factors will affect learning?
  4. What role will technology play?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions…

Who Has the Knowledge?

In a collaborative capacity-building model, who is sharing knowledge is a critical factor in workshop and training design. Just because you take a collaborative approach, doesn’t mean that you can’t have a “lead trainer” or “experts” in subject areas. The key is to understand where the expertise exists in your community. Who has knowledge to share? Do guest experts need to be invited to take part? Or is all the knowledge going to come from the participants themselves?

Who Participates?

Since collaborative training relies heavily on participants, it is important to define who should be part of the training. If you hope to draw the knowledge and expertise from participants, make sure that you are training folks who can bring knowledge and expertise to share. If you want to focus on a certain subject area, be sure to invite those who work in that subject. If you need leadership buy-in, have leaders at the table. Matching your goals with your participants list will greatly improve your ability to create a collaborative learning environment.

What Cultural Factors Will Affect Learning?

There are so many cultural values that aren’t openly discussed, but must be uncovered for any collaborative training to be a success. For example: Should the training be a “safe space” for participants to share sensitive issues? Do the participants have disabilities that need to be considered? Are there language or other cultural considerations? Thinking about how the learning will be applied is also an important consideration. For example: Does the organization embrace (or refuse) experimentation/failure?

What Role Will Technology Play?

As usual, technology is the final piece of the puzzle. How can technology fit the needs of your participants? How can technology increase the collaborative nature of your training?

Simple additions of technology into your trainings can greatly improve the collaborative nature of your approach: a private Facebook or LinkedIn Group offers an “out-of-school-time” communications avenue, a Twitter hashtag provides a back channel for conversations during a class, and a video conferencing tool may build “face-to-face” relationships with participants across locations. There is no limit to what technology can provide for a learning collaborative, but only technology implemented to meet a specific goal or assist in deploying a learning element will actually build capacity and increase training effectiveness.

Collaborative Learning in Practice

Marlboro College Graduate School’s nonprofit management program’s faculty wanted to learn from each other’s expertise via a “learning community” without a lead. They created a Google Doc to sign up for a topic and met by Google Hangout monthly. The participant/facilitator presented the learning concept with questions for all to consider. Faculty prioritized creating an equal co-learning environment, which informed the design of the training.

JCamp 180’s JTEC program, a training program for communications staff at nonprofit Jewish camps, puts the questions of “who participates?” front and center. Executive Directors are required to attend the kick-off session with their staff to work on goal setting. If leadership isn’t willing to spend this initial time on the training, they probably won’t follow through on recommended communications changes and campaigns based on the learning throughout the year.

The Exceptional Children’s Assistance Center recognized that the majority of their trainings were in English, but a substantial part of their community spoke Spanish as their first language. To address this language gap and “level” the playing field language-wise, they created the Latinos Unidos online community, a Spanish-only online community for their Spanish-speaking staff. As a community, they determine topics for discussion, with the goal of preventing feelings of isolation and building the capacity of the Spanish-speaking community.

In summary, a collaborative learning environment requires consideration of all collaboration factors. Build elements into your design that foster collaboration, and take into account the knowledge of your community members, their cultural issues and concerns, and the technology needed to create a successful learning experience.

This article is based on our #16ntc session, The Future of Capacity-Building is Collaborative. The slides and collaborative notes from the session may be downloaded from the session link.

Photo credit: NY Photographic

Andrea Berry
Andrea Berry is the Director of Communications and Engagement at Maine Initiatives Community Foundation. A specialist in fundraising and communications strategy, Andrea has spent her career helping nonprofits plan and execute effective campaigns to meet organizational and mission goals.