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Capacity Building-Long term regional improvements require a strategic approach.

Avatar photo by Casey Woods, Executive Director | August 3, 2023

Community building is a lot like any other investing. You need a diverse portfolio, it’s important to grow your own wealth as opposed to hoping someone just gives wealth to you, and understanding the nature of risk versus potential return often puts people and regions into longer term positive trajectories.

At a recent Kansas Main Street Quarterly Training, we had the opportunity to speak with multiple communities and state agencies that were altering their investment strategies to focus more on capacity building. Essentially, communities are starting to rethink their investment strategies to determine better ways to help “move the needle” while trying to better understand the underlying dynamics to community issues.

Because “capacity building” can be rather buzzword-ish, let’s define the issue with an analogy. Local businesses get hit up for donations pretty frequently. Businesses that are based locally and are more profitable often donate more to local causes. If we wanted to build up capacity within the community for sustainable support, the strategy would need to include training and support for healthier locally owned businesses.

Capacity building must also look at available resources realistically. If your neighbor, who was rarely home, had two dogs that were outside all the time, often without food or water, then brought home two more dogs- what would you think? Obviously you would be concerned for the welfare of the animals, but you might also think “if they can’t/won’t take care of two pets, how will they take care of four?” Resources in communities aren’t infinite, so capacity building must often generate the most bang for the buck.

Root causes of issues must be addressed to create actual increases in community capacity. If you moved to a new home and spotted a leak in a pipe that was covered with duct tape, would you say “man, I need to get some duct tape that is more water proof”, or would you fix the pipe? Capacity building strategies generate measurable impacts that make things noticeably better over time because they address the root issues of problems in the area and/or work to maximize opportunities.

When communities are looking at capacity building, they start with good data about the community, its people, and how individuals are accessing different elements of the community. They then focus on “doers” within the community that have implemented projects that made measurable progress for the area, not just for the project itself. Finally, they talk through layered strategies to improve the region for each demographic of the region sustainably, and commit to metrics that measure those improvements. Once those steps are taken, people figure out their role in the process of making things better by honestly assessing their capabilities and what is realistically possible for measured change in a region.

The opposite of capacity building is something that we call “spray and pray”. It often is generated by throwing ideas out with limited (if any) research, and hoping singular project takes hold for community transformation. That’s great if you have a lot of resources and get lucky, but sustainable capacity building programs run a little differently. Yes, they try new things, but they also record the impacts of the things that they are trying to determine if their strategies are successful. They can work across several categories (there is no one magic bullet for community success), but impacts of the strategies are discussed up front.

What can we do better to improve capacity building in our region? Contact Emporia Main StreetVolunteer. Get involved. Let’s work together to build our capacity.

About the Author

Casey Woods, Executive Director

Before accepting the director position in March of 2009, Casey worked in both retail and agricultural jobs in the family businesses. A lifelong resident of the Emporia Area, Casey was a ten year volunteer for Emporia Main Street prior to his appointment as director. During that time he served as the board president and chair of the Economic Vitality Committee.

Casey also serves as a partner in PlaceMakers, LLC, a consulting firm that routinely works with both large and small communities, and their businesses, to promote sustainable economic growth through community and economic development practices. Casey consults with businesses, organizations and communities to understand their market capacity and fill vacant spaces. He has been involved in two projects that included crowdfunding as a part of their overall business funding strategies, Radius Brewing and Twin Rivers Winery & Gourmet Shoppe.