A few weeks ago, I heard Eileen Setti speak on the topic of capacity building. I was struck by her emphasis on information, and began to wonder about what information we are bringing into museums, and who has access to that information. I asked to interview her in order to pursue this line of thought.
Eileen Setti recently defended her doctoral dissertation on information absorption and nonprofit capacity building at Northern Illinois University. She is a partner in the consulting firm Ruby & Associates which specializes in nonprofit organizations. In July, Eileen will become the Director of Community Education at Methodist College in Peoria, Illinois.
What is “capacity-building”?
There are dozens of definitions for capacity building in academic research. I like using a very general definition: Capacity building is any sort of activity or effort that an organization intentionally adopts, with the desire to improve delivery of their mission. So, for example, a Board training, a staff member going to a conference, or converting to a computerized finance system are all examples of capacity building.
What is the relationship between information and capacity-building?
In order to build an organization’s capacity you have to first acquire new information, then figure out how it will be useful, and finally, change how the organization functions. If the information becomes part of the fabric of your organization, then capacity building is achieved. Essentially, new information is needed in order to build capacity of an organization. If we think about the example of adopting a new financial accounting system, you can see how selecting “the best” system for an organization involves acquiring new knowledge about the types of software available. Assimilating that information occurs when the most appropriate option for the organization is selected. Then staff has to be trained on how to use the software and the finances have to be entered and reports generated—which is how the new knowledge is exploited.
“Absorptive capacity” – or an organization’s ability to use new information – is a construct developed in for-profit innovation literature. This literature establishes that organizations need a great deal of new information in order to just maintain their competitive edge. In order to be a leader in their industry, and to be innovative, they need to really focus on acquiring new information and bringing it into an organization at a fast rate.
Acquiring new information is the easiest part of this process. The most difficult aspect of information absorption is assimilation and transformation.
Assimilation requires you to sit down and think, “Is this relevant to my organization?” That can’t happen in a vacuum. It needs to be shared with staff or possibly with a Board. Information assimilation is like “chewing” on information to determine how it is relevant. For example, a staff member may attend a conference and learn about how a museum can facilitate pop-up or off-site programs around the city. However, for a very small museum with only one or two full-time staff members, this information is likely not relevant because the museum does not have the staff power to support off-site programs. Therefore, the information is not assimilated.
However, if the new information is relevant, the organization needs to determine how it can actually be used in the organization. This is knowledge transformation. How are we going to change our behavior? How can we create new materials or tools to make this work in our organization? In the case of off-site programs, a larger museum would consider how they could utilize staff and volunteers to leverage off-site programming. It’s not enough to just acquire new information. The organization must also assimilate and transform information in order to build their capacity.
Let’s start with acquiring information. Who needs access to new information?
New information needs to be acquired at all levels – every staff person, volunteer, and Board member is an agent of the organization. A person working on the front line has a different experience of the organization than the Executive Director. The kind of information that they might capture is totally different than the information the bookkeeper would capture. Those differences are critical to the overall health of the organization.
Executive Directors and Board Chairs set the pace for acquiring, assimilating, and transforming new information. It is important that the Board be committed to staff development, saying “we value you going to this conference, taking this class, getting your degree.” In my research, organizations where the Board and the Executive Director send this message saw the benefit of everyone bringing information in.
Often in a museum there is a limited budget for professional development, mostly allocated to full-time staff. How important is it that a museum include part-time staff in this process of accessing new information?
Everyone needs to be contributing to all aspects of information absorption—part-time, full-time, front desk, board members, maintenance—everyone. I think part of the equation is first understanding the skills that individual staff members possess. Where are their gaps? Where are their strengths?
The first step in information absorption on the road to capacity building is just setting the time aside to have conversations about your work, and including part-time staff in decision making. If part-time staff or volunteers feel like they are valued and part of the decision-making process then they will naturally acquire new information. Information acquisition happens during work hours and outside of work hours in formal and informal settings. I think about the hundreds of conversations I’ve had in my career about my job with friends – the conversations naturally flow to information people give me that might help me in the future. “I’m having this trouble at work” or “Can you recommend a good consultant?” or “Do you have this particular policy that I could use as a guideline.” Part-time staff can be part of that type of information building as well, which is outside the bounds of a conference or a specific training session but can still be impactful to the organization.
The longer I am in my field, the less conference presentations seem useful – they often share already-familiar information and ideas. What makes a conference presentation useful? How do you identify valuable information?
In my research, I spoke to one Executive Director who took over his organization 25 years ago. At that time, the organization was very small. Today it has a multi-million dollar annual budget, and stretches far beyond its original service area. He said that for the longest time he wouldn’t hire someone unless they could work in one of the organization’s programs. Even a bookkeeper had to be able to hop on the floor and perform direct services to their clients. However, when he started hiring specialists – a trained bookkeeper or an experienced CFO– those specialists really impacted the organization and fueled the organization’s growth. The specialists couldn’t perform direct services, but their expertise radically impacted the capacity of the organization. He said, having specialists at all levels of the organization is what supported its tremendous growth.
I think this relates to the “quality” of conferences. It could be that, for certain positions in an organization or times in your career, the type of information that you need isn’t going to come from a museum-specific conference—or a sector specific conference. As a museum director you probably know how to manage exhibits and create educational experiences for your patrons. These and similar topics are likely covered at museum conferences. However, the museum director may have no idea how to fundraise. So maybe the director needs to attend a fundraising conference rather than a museum conference…or a Human Resources conference…or turn to Board Source to learn how to develop the museum’s governance structure. In essence you’re attending a specialized conference rather than a generalized conference.
Conferences are less fun when you don’t know everyone there.
I know! And the problem is that birds of a feather flock together. My dissertation is interdisciplinary, which is very rare in my department at Northern Illinois. I turned to sociology, the business school, and public administration because I was cutting across all sorts of theories and ideas in order to study information absorption and capacity building. My research would have been very different if I had just stayed in my speciality area of public administration—if I had flocked with my birds! But when I connected with other specialists, my research took off.
It’s the same with a museum. You are not just a museum – you are a business. So take a holistic approach to capacity building. Sketch out who does what in the organization. Determine the training budget and how it can be allocated. Be creative and identify “free” sources of information in the community—who can you take out to lunch in order to “pick their brain.” Don’t all going to the same conference, unless that conference has different tracks for different people in the organization. Then find specialized resources like community leaders, conferences and trainings to build all aspects of your business. Be part of several flocks!
How do you decide what information is worth assimilating and transforming?
Deciding what information is worthy or unworthy has a lot to do with the strategic directives of the organization. I’m working with a non-profit in the Peoria area that is planning a very aggressive expansion into several counties beyond their core service area. Because of this goal, they are hungry for information that has to do with sustainability, fundraising, and how to make new relationships in communities where people are unfamiliar with their mission. The strategic direction of expansion really focused their efforts on the type of information they needed in order to support expansion. This is building capacity by absorbing new information at its best. Looking at your strategic directives is one way to weed out unnecessary information.
You can also look at your museum holistically, by considering your programmatic capacity. Do you need new programs? Is it better to revamp existing programs? Are you paying your bills? Is your building getting clean? Is your building crumbling? This can guide what information is relevant to your agency or museum.
Are there tools for assimilation and transformation of information?
The literature about information absorption in a non-profit setting is not developed—to my knowledge my dissertation is the first consideration of absorptive capacity in a nonprofit organization. In the for-profit world, the literature talks about information-sharing across a large organization, getting departments to talk to each other, creating settings where sparks of innovation can occur, be assimilated, and then transformed.
One simple thing a museum can do is create intentional opportunities for new information to be acquired. Then look at how the staff creates time in their busy day to discuss some of these issues, to ask, “How could we use this information?” In non-profits is there is a tension between just getting through the day (often because we are all understaffed and underfunded) and long term thinking – like strategic planning, succession planning or fund development. It’s really hard to balance the everyday with the long-term planning that needs to happen. But information assimilation and transformation is the only way new information actually gets used or leveraged in the organization.
I think the best tool to help with assimilation and transformation is a meeting on your calendar with staff to process newly acquired information and then plan. Imagine you went to a conference about museum programming for pre-schoolers, and got great new ideas. We all fall victim to sliding the conference packet and the little stack of business cards you collected at the conference onto your bookshelf never to be opened again because we have emails to answer, bills to pay and staff to direct. But think about it. You already have the most powerful information absorption tools at your disposal. Schedule a meeting with staff and sit down to discuss your newly acquired information from the conference. Is it relevant? How can you use it in YOUR organization? What would need to change? Just take one little tidbit and use it! To me, that meeting and a simple plan of action are all you need to absorb new information and build any organization’s capacity.