This piece was originally published by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Cross-posted here with permission. 

Organizations are complex. Every day, as I-O psychologists, we are faced with a laudable mandate—to research and address complex organizational systems, cultures, processes, and behaviors, which are deeply institutionalized, often rigid, and hard to untangle and demystify. But what happens when you compound this problem with corruption? Introduce a cross-cultural element? Introduce factors such as underpaid staff and a lackluster leadership capacity to drive the basic functions of an organization? What happens when assumptions about what we know about individual and organizational behavior are thrown out the window, and we are left with a fragile organization that is resource poor, where leaders and staff are working to meet ambitious goals with underwhelming and antiquated practices and basic systems? Such is the reality faced by many civil society organizations in the developing world. I am an I-O psychologist who works with donors and programs that often support civil society organizations and here I share my thoughts about how our field can make a difference!

The Importance of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)

CSOs are a collection of nongovernmental organizations whose objectives typically center around the improvement of social, democratic, or economic conditions. In the civil society development setting, the concepts of organizational capacity and capabilities have been around for some time; however, the level of attention and rigor applied to this field continues to evolve. When large public-sector donor agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development or the Department of State provide assistance to CSOs, they are often interested in relatively immediate organizational growth and sustainability. Some may want to fund CSOs that lobby for free elections in a country that historically has had irregular elections or engage with CSOs that provide the most vulnerable populations with basic services for leading a better quality of life. Regardless of purpose, these agencies and donors are constantly monitoring and tracking the CSO space. More specifically, donors are interested in the development of CSO leadership and governance structures, human resource and financial management systems, and employee and organizational level accountability and performance. They want CSOs to succeed by often addressing and meeting their very basic needs through technical assistance, direct or indirect funding, and mechanisms that can strengthen a CSO’s network. They all realize that CSOs are an important part of any country’s societal fabric.

Evolution in the CSO Capacity Building Field

In this article, I want to share an illustration of the current trends in the CSO space. Over the past several decades, capacity building interventions oriented towards CSOs are evolving from transactional (Capacity Building 1.0) to a more systems-based perspective (Capacity Building 2.0). Under 1.0, capacity building interventions are generally focused on building transactional systems and efficiencies (think Maslow’s basic hierarchy of needs for organizations!). The focus is on ensuring management efficiency and excellence, stronger internal systems, and a more insular strategy where the CSO is largely reactive to its environment. Over several decades of programmatic implementation, experts in the CSO space have realized that this is not enough. Providing training and coaching to leadership boards and staff on human resources, financial and procurement systems, and tightening accountability are simply insufficient to propel organizational effectiveness. The linkages and assumptions behind this approach simply do not translate into better performance. In other words, more needs to be understood and done for CSOs in countries that are often unstable, lack adequate human talent and capacity, or are not particularly open to change.

Under 2.0, recent capacity building interventions are more tailored and oriented towards supporting an organization’s particular goals and capabilities with an orientation towards its environment. In Capacity 2.0, “high performance” is no longer defined in terms of management excellence or efficiency but rather by an organization achieving (or exceeding) its mission and contributing significantly to, or leading, the system in which it operates. Under this perspective, organizations are viewed as robust and dynamic entities capable of leading social change and serving as resources for weaker institutions. This refreshing perspective promotes the idea that CSOs are active in their environment and are change agents for communities and systems.

An Application of I-O Within the CSO Space

Recently, I have been working with my project team to help a client collate research on capacity development practices for CSOs and helping to develop a resource guide for program designers and managers who ultimately are interested in (a) understanding what organizational capacity entails, (b) how best to measure it, (c) tracking organizational growth over time, and, (d) identifying interventions that work to develop organizations at various levels of maturity. In this project, we have developed a repository of capacity building best practices within the CSO capacity development field including organizational clustering—where CSOs are brought together based on their organizational strengths and challenges to form cohorts, or twinning—where a partnership is established between two institutions (typically referred to as supplier and recipient organizations) with the aim of sustainably increasing the capacity of the recipient organization.

Besides identifying close to 14 types of organizational capacity development interventions, what I found fascinating was the variation in organizational solutions and effectiveness. As we matured in our project research, I helped our team to develop a conceptual framework for how one could understand organizational maturity and its complexity. We classified organizational maturity into three stages across a continuum of growth—nascent, emergent, and mature—with the understanding that CSOs vacillate along this continuum. Weak finance and human resources internal systems alongside a transactional point of view may classify CSOs into a more nascent stage, whereas higher levels of organizational effectiveness and a systems-oriented leadership structure are indicators of a mature CSO.

Further, we developed a series of conceptual dimensions like performance focus, strategic orientation, contextual orientation, organizational innovation, measurement scope, and internal capacity and talent. Using these dimensions, we developed a 3 × 6 table of characteristics that nascent, emergent, and mature organizations exhibit along these dimensions. For example, nascent organizations often display limited organizational innovation and have a strong focus on internal development and efficiency. Emergent organizations may seek to maintain transactional excellence and focus on balancing internal operations and external environmental tensions. Mature organizations, on the other hand, may demonstrate exploration innovation, exercising thought leadership in their systems, and really leading transformational change in their environments. Circling back to the 14 capacity building interventions, we realized that we had stumbled upon an important point—capacity building interventions are flexible in how they can be applied to organizations and need to carefully consider the stages of organizational maturity and how CSOs are performing across the six dimensions. We concluded that a contingency-based approach to capacity building works best when classifying and working with CSOs with varying levels of capabilities and prospects.

Reflections of an I-O Psychologist

Today, the CSO space is burgeoning, and an excitement is in the air about its impact on systems, populations, and nations. In the midst of this enthusiasm, the landscape (and our project!) continues to evolve and so does my thinking on how we, as I-O psychologists, can continue to leverage and apply our expertise. Moving forward, I believe there is a tremendous opportunity in this discipline to understand how capacity building interventions influence elements like organizational culture, organizational purpose, employee performance, and leadership. Although many well-established and researched tools and metrics exist for understanding organizational capacity, the links between organizational capacity, types of capacity building interventions, and outcomes (i.e., at the individual and team levels, leadership, culture, and organizational performance)—particularly in a cross-cultural setting—remain somewhat underinvestigated. In this article, I have shared my perspectives on the important (and emerging) role that I-O can play in the international development sector and how we can apply our unique training and skill sets to further development aims through a multitude of channels. Ultimately, I-O psychologists contribute to organizational performance. In the domestic and international context, we have a wonderful opportunity to research and measure and apply our training to strengthen people, processes, organizations, and systems to ultimately improve accountability and social outcomes. Coming from the perspective of humanitarian work psychology and prosocial efforts, we have a moral imperative to contribute to a larger sense of collective good, particularly in areas that continue to receive less attention in the global arena.

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