A free resource for nonprofit organizations, NGOs, civil society organizations,
charities, schools, public sector agencies & other mission-based agencies
by Jayne Cravens
More resources at coyotecommunications.com & coyoteboard.com (same web site)

Civil Society Capacity Building: Why?

My favorite kind of professional work is building the capacities of civil society organizations, especially in transitional and developing countries, to communicate, to change minds and to engage a variety of people and communities, through communications, dialogue and volunteering. But the term civil society isn't used in USA as commonly as it is elsewhere, and many don’t understand exactly what I mean when I talk about my favorite type of work.

Civil society is a term commonly heard outside the USA when discussing community development. Civil society is a term for the assortment of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), nonprofit organizations, activist groups and institutions that, together, demonstrate the interests and will of residents of a particular area.  Note, however, that these interests do not have to be the will of a majority of residents. Sometimes the term civil society is used in the more general sense of "the elements such as freedom of speech, an independent judiciary, etc, that make up a democratic society." Institutions composing civil society may be for-profit or not-for-profit. These definitions of civil society come from the Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged 11th Edition, retrieved 30 December 2012. 

Civil society organizations include:

Why is it important for a country to have a robust, sustainable civil society? This is from “Civil society empowerment” by OECD, April 2013:

“Civil society has a key role to play in fighting corruption, from monitoring public services, denouncing bribery to raising awareness of all economic and political actors. Since most cases of corruption involve pubic officials and private companies, civil society as an independent actor representing the interests of the general public is uniquely positioned denounce and expose corruption cases and put pressure for reform. Governments therefore have to take measures to enable and strengthen civil society participation and civil society has to be aware of its role and make use of its potential leverage.”

But civil society doesn't work in a vacuum, and no civil society entity is an island; as noted in “Supporting civil society in Africa: Building ‘deep vertical’ and ‘broad horizontal’ partnerships amongst private foundations, NGOs and civil society organisations,” by International NGO Training and Research Centre (INTRAC): "Most development activities involve a range of actors, who contribute to the work in different ways, for example bringing skills, networks or resources. There may be multiple layers between monetary input and development activities and outcomes. A typical ‘chain’ might involve private funder, intermediary international NGO, local partner NGO(s), community-based organisations and individual beneficiaries. Each of the components within this framework brings added value, but also has its own capacity needs, costs and contextual imperatives to deal with."

Again, civil society might demonstrate the interests and will of residents of a particular area or demographic, but these interests do not have to be the will of a majority of residents. For instance, civil society groups working for LBGTQ rights are often fighting against a majority view that such people should not have rights. Civil society groups working to help women that are experiencing domestic violence may represent a minority view on a sea of a religious majority that believes their religion justifies violence against wives and daughters.
Strengthening civil society

Strengthening civil society means building up organizational capacity and sustainability at a variety of civil society organizations. That can include:

Altogether, such strengthening of civil society doesn’t just ensure that organizations have the capacity to fulfill contractual obligations and be accountable to funders; it also better ensures the organizations will be accountable to those they represent, which should always be the primary goal, and to fulfill their role within the multiple players involved in a community, region or country’s development. Such strengthening might also enable organizations to become sufficiently sustainable to carry on their work without external support at some point in the future.

How are capacities of civil society strengthened? Through:

What do I mean by that last bullet "Creating processes that build capacity"? Processes that build capacity could be, for instance, a volunteer recruitment tool for NGOs that builds the NGO's capacity to support and manage volunteers. That's something I tried to do with the United Nations Online Volunteering service; I changed it from just a recruitment tool for online volunteers to a capacity-builing tool, by creating a process where, through how organizations signed up, how they had to provide details about what a volunteer was going to do, how they had to follow up with volunteers, and various reporting systems, NGOs that used the system would be building their capacities to support and manage volunteers overall. By using the service, organizations didn't just recruit volunteers; they also built their volunteer management skills.

Many organizations face challenges which cannot be overcome in the typical 3-day workshop. That's why training must be ongoing, and why building capacity through processes can be so effective. 

Training is fundamentally important, but training must be focused on more than just the basics, like basic accounting tips, or how to write a press release. Absolutely, such basic trainings are important, but there needs to also be advanced trainings. Examples of capacity-building trainings that go beyond the basics:

This NGO Capacity Assessment Tool can be used to identify an NGO’s or nonprofit's strengths and weaknesses and help to establish a unified, coherent vision of what an NGO can be. The tool provides a step-by-step way to map where an organization is and can help those working with the NGO or nonprofit, including consultants, board members, employees, volunteers, clients, and others, to decide which functional areas need to be strengthened and how to go about to strengthen them. The tool was compiled by Europe Foundation (EPF) in the country of Georgia, and is based on various resources, including USAID – an NGO Capacity Assessment Supporting Tool from USAID (2000), the NGO Sustainability Index 2004-2008, the Civil Society Index (2009) from CIVICUS, and Peace Corps/Slovakia NGO Characteristics Assessment for Recommended Development (NGO CARD) 1996-1997.

Fundamental Importance of Mastering Communications & Partnering Skills

To survive and flourish, civil society organizations must have the competence to represent themselves and others. That's why communications-related capacity-building is so fundamental to their success. Communications includes everything from press relations to identifying hostile audiences to countering misinformation to how to organize a successful community event and on and on. It includes developing robust monitoring, evaluation and reporting systems.

Civil society organizations also need partners, formal and informal, in order to survive, and therefore need to know how to identify potential partners, how to approach potential partners, how to set expectations of a relationship, how to communicate with partners, and on and on. In particular, civil society organizations must be able to engage openly and honestly with donors, and know how not to be steam-rolled by unrealistic donor demands.

Let Me Help You!


I'm an international consultant, researcher and trainer. My work is focused on communications (my first love), volunteer involvement / community engagement, and management for nonprofits, NGOs, and government initiatives. I can design classes and workshops, or I can take on a longer-term consulting assignment for your organization.

Contact me for more information.

Also see: Civil Society: Not Just an Advocate, but an Agent for Change, a December 4, 2017 article by Chemonics. "CSOs challenge entrenched processes, resulting in inclusive, transparent, and accountable environments where communities can effectively engage with their government and promote meaningful change. CSOs continue to be an important part of the dialogue not only as advocates, but as facilitators and enablers that work towards solutions for the common good."

Also see:

 The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook

from Energize, Inc.
Completely revised and updated, & includes lots more advice about microvolunteering!
Published January 2014.


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