Walking the talk: A capacity building conversation with Philanthropy University


Synergos was grateful to have Philanthropy University as a contributor to our new report, Capacity Building Across Borders: A Strategy for Funders and Partners. Philanthropy University is a leading capacity building provider, helping civil society organizations across the world grow their knowledge and expertise through free online courses, awards, and learning communities. They were an insightful voice at the report launch event last month, and we’re excited to continue the conversation here with their co-founder and CEO, Connor Diemand-Yauman, where he shares the history of how the initiative came about, as well as insights on some of the most prominent themes in the report.

Can you introduce us to Philanthropy University and share a bit about its history?

Philanthropy University was founded in 2015 as a direct outgrowth of the acclaimed, London-based Stars Foundation honoring exceptional local nonprofits with capacity building. We saw an opportunity to scale the Stars Foundation’s incredible offerings to local organizations worldwide, and from this, Philanthropy University was born.

Philanthropy University has a goal to reach 5,000 organizations serving 100 million people worldwide by 2020. How are you progressing toward that goal?

Having registered over 235,000 learners to date, we’re making good progress towards this goal. But amassing a large user base is a small first step in our wildly ambitious theory of change; since our topline goal focuses on measurably improving local organizations, we must go beyond registrations and strive for engagement over time.

We’re observing positive indicators. For example, our course completion rates across more than 10,000 enrollments in nine subject areas range between 5% and 17%. Compared to an industry average of 5%-8%. And yet, we can’t be seduced by these intermediate outputs. We must keep our eye on the ultimate outcomes we’re striving to manifest: the measurable improvement of local organizations worldwide.

While we’re on the topic of goals, how would you say your work interfaces with the SDGs?

Connor Diemand-Yauman quoteThe SDGs are core. Time and time again the development sector has witnessed the power of enabling local leaders to solve the challenges in their own backyards. The SDGs are no exception. Local organizations are more effective and enduring than their non-local, international counterparts in addressing the complex, cross-cutting challenges underlying the SDGs. By supporting this local layer of the development sector, we are indirectly supporting each SDG.

What do you think are some of the most pressing needs among civil society organizations across the Global South? Which hard and soft skills are most needed?

I’m glad you brought up the hard skill/soft skill distinction. Generally speaking, capacity building organizations tend to lean more toward hard skills, like monitoring and evaluation, accounting, or fundraising; Philanthropy University’s current course offerings reflect this bias. But it’s clear that civil society leaders also need social and emotional skills to thrive. This is why I find the terms “soft skills” and “hard skills” problematic: they imply that one is somehow less substantive or impactful than the other (after all, who wants to be known as “soft”?!). Nothing could be further from the truth.

Synergos’ report observes that civil society organizations in the Global South can have varying definitions of capacity building, including some negative ones that view it as a Western imposition. Do you encounter this perspective often? How do you respond to it?

We do sometimes encounter this perception and it's a very real, deeply-held sentiment. While many funders and capacity builders like to talk about giving their partners more decision-making power and resisting the temptation to “parachute in,” our sector doesn’t go far enough in walking the talk.

Ultimately, this orientation stems from power dynamics that Synergos highlights in its report. These pernicious biases and imbalances are hiding everywhere: even terms like “funder” and “grantee” are imbued with unhealthy associations that hold the sector back. Capacity builders must be ever-aware of the inherent power dynamics in their work and continually re-examine their interactions with partners at every stage. Philanthropy University is not immune to these trends.

This leads us to the topic of the relationship between funders and their civil society partners, which the report also expounds upon. How have you seen the importance of relationship building in your work?

I was excited by the report’s focus on this relationship. It’s shocking to observe how frequently funders and capacity builders do not consult NGO partners they’re hoping to serve. The best products and services stem from deep user research, understanding, and buy-in. The development sector is no different.

Grantmakers and capacity builders are good at pushing civil society to evaluate itself, but often lack such introspection in their own organizations.

Building trusting, open relationships with NGO partners is a two-way street; we can’t underestimate the difficulty of this mind-shift, or the importance of funders and capacity builders engendering the same behaviors they expect of their partners on the ground.

Why do you think it’s such a challenge for funders to make these shifts?

Much of the challenge is due to inertia. From the funder’s perspective, incentives to maintain the status quo are often far greater than the incentives to change.

Again, the required changes aren’t trivial; they are deep, systematic, and cultural. Furthermore, they require those in power relinquishing control: no easy task, even for the most enlightened organizations.

If capacity builders hope to achieve sustained impact at the local level, these uncomfortable shifts are table stakes.

How is Philanthropy University working to shift its own power dynamics?

We're working to be better listeners and to accept that the solutions lie in local leaders’ hearts and minds rather than within funders' walls. Practically, this involves gathering lots of detailed feedback from our users. This feedback cycle must be lean, iterative, and grounded in clearly-scoped, user-centric hypotheses.

Our listening efforts at Philanthropy University have already yielded many insights and improvements, such as geographically contextualized courses, sourcing more local instructors, and offering courses in more accessible formats such as podcasts and downloadables. We’re also relying on massive amounts of our data, which involves avoiding vanity metrics and instead focusing on data that speaks to real, enduring outcomes.

Designed for learners and local organizations in the Global South but open to all, Philanthropy University helps nonprofit leaders become more effective in their work and unlock greater impact in their organizations. Learn more about them at PhilanthropyU.org.

Dive deeper into the capacity building conversation by reading the full Synergos report, 'Capacity Building Across Borders.'