Image by Paul Kuttner, Cultural Organizing

By Allison Jolley, Watershed Research and Training Center with additional reflections from Forest Schafer, California Tahoe Conservancy

Back in high school, I rowed. As in crew. My favorite rowing memory was the year my 8-woman-boat raced at the Head of the Charles, the largest “Head Race” in the world. It took years, and too many calluses to count, for my team to qualify. Finally, my junior year we did it. Our previous season’s performance secured us an invitation to compete at the infamous Head of the Charles, a regatta primarily for college-age rowers and up. It was October, in Boston, and it was freezing. Probably below freezing if we’re being technical. Our boat glided along the ice-cold water, our bodies working hard enough to sweat in tank tops despite fat snowflakes falling on our backs. Our bodies moved as one. Years of individual strength and endurance training, years of perfecting our technique, years of learning how to move with one heartbeat finally earned us spot at the “big kids table.” Each of our oars collectively cut and shred the water. We were “seeded” (as in expected to place) 42nd; we came in 13th. It felt like first place though. We rowed our perfect race. It was beautiful.

Oh right, this blog is about capacity, not crew.

Okay, fill in the blank: “In order to do work, we’d need more ___.”

What word did you choose? Money? Staff? Skills? Trust? Infrastructure? Or, the blanket term, “capacity”?

Capacity is a big word these days. But what is it? Why does everyone seem to need it to get work done? And how do you actually build capacity?

Capacity = Capital

If you ask a social scientist about capacity, odds are, they’ll start talking about capital. Financial capital. Social capital (for example, trust among partners). Human capital (the right people, with the right know-how). You can measure capital through value or volume. Building it is a bit more ambiguous. Maybe you seek a seed investment (financial capital) so that you can hire and train more staff (human capital) or purchase equipment for prescribed fire (built capital of sorts; office space or a community center is probably a better, more literal example.) Or, if you’re in the business of building the capacity of others, maybe you provide a seed investment or technical guidance to someone else for them to build up their capacities. The Community Capitals Framework outlines seven types of capital (PDF,405KB). Although the framework is presented as related to “community life,” the seven types intersect well with natural resource programs and objectives.

capital types.png

These are seven commonly referred to types of capital. I bet you can identify at least one example within each type of capital that relates to your fire adapted community efforts. Click on the image above for more background. Image modified from one created by Lionel J. “Bo” Beaulieu, Purdue University.

Strategic Investments

But where do you start? Is it the money that’s the most urgent need, or a technical skill set? Do you/they need a training or certification? And if you are the one trying to build other practitioners’ or organizations’ capacity, where’s the best Return on Investment? Passing through all of your funding? Deploying experts and mentors for training, learning exchanges and coaching? Or a mix? At the Watershed Research and Training Center, we’re embarking on a three-year capacity building program, focused on building up a range of capacities within the forest and fire domain among California vegetation management practitioners. We’ve learned a lot these first few months of the program, but one thing sticks out: capacity building has to be a mix of approaches, and it has to be informed by existing assets, needs and interests.

California is a huge state, and there are a lot of forest- and fire-focused organizations. If we divvied up our entire grant from the California Natural Resources Agency and Department of Conservation, I estimate everyone working on forest and fire would get… five dollars? That’s a guesstimate largely because we don’t even know how many practitioners are involved! Which brings me to my next point: finding out what entities (tribes, organizations, and collaboratives) have, need and want.

You hear this all the time from folks who serve(d) others, whether they’re talking about the Peace Corps, social justice, or a community project: “You have to start by asking people what they want and need.” We’re doing this at the Watershed Center by conducting a statewide, capacity and needs assessment. We worked with program partners and Dr. Emily Jane Davis of University of Oregon to identify a whopping 62 capacities that we consider to be important skills in working effectively in the forest and fire domain. And that was just related to planning and implementing vegetation management programs! I’m confident we could’ve come up with 300+ capacities if we included non-vegetation management “FAC practices.”

One interesting nuance to those forest and fire capacities is that over a dozen of the ones we included are actually organizational capacities. No matter what domain you’re working in, I’d argue that there are two important buckets of capacities: technical and organizational. In the forest and fire world, technical capital represents the capacity to conduct specific specialized tasks for managing forests and creating fire adapted communities. For example, do you have a registered professional forester on your staff, or a certified burn boss? The Watershed Center calls these technical forest and fire capacities.

But what about a bookkeeper? If you work in accounting that too would be technical human capital, but in the forest and fire world, I’d categorize that as organizational human capital. What about federally negotiated indirect cost rates? They matter at the organizational level for nonprofits working in fire. Not everyone on your staff needs to know how to write a contract or develop/follow procurement policies, but someone should, as those capacities are essential to managing grants and agreements. These skills and tools are organizational capacities, not directly related to forestry and fire management, but essential “backbone” systems supporting the organization.

So, you hit the open water, eh?

Crew is a beautiful, dare I say romantic, sport. Lots of people fantasize about learning how to row. But how do you start? I used to see a lot of middle-aged people turning their dreams into reality back on the river. They’d buy the perfect rowing outfit, a visor (it was the 90s) and get on the water, often in a single (a one-person boat) or a double (a two-person boat). And then, almost instantaneously, they’d lose balance and fall into the water. I wouldn’t be surprised if some relationships ended after a couples’ first sunset row.

If you really want to learn to row, you start by learning the basics. Maybe on an ergometer (think rowing machine). Finding a teacher is a good idea. Familiarizing yourself with the equipment. Talking through how to get back in the boat should you fall out.

Eventually you get the hang of it and start perfecting your technique. You get in shape. You get in better shape. You practice, you do some low-key races, some not-so-low-key races, and then maybe you qualify to race at the Charles. You never start at the Charles.

Capacity building is similar: it’s an iterative, cumulative process. I’m not suggesting that people in need of capacity should first master rowing. I am, however, suggesting that you shouldn’t deliver “all the things, all at once.” Capacity building should follow a process and include careful planning and assessment. There were three categories on our recent capacities and needs assessment: “I have this capacity;” “I want this capacity,” or “I don’t need this capacity.” Imagine yourself on the receiving end of this assessment. What would you do with respondents who marked “I want this capacity” for 62 different skills? My answer: follow-up and prioritize. The Watershed Center itself doesn’t have the financial capacity to deliver every “want” to every practitioner. But what helps me sleep at night—or sometimes keeps me up—is that even if we did, delivering 62 capacities all at once would metaphorically flood just about any organizational crew boat, or shell as rowers call it. So, there has to be significant analysis to understand what the most appropriate initial investment(s) should be.

Also interesting is when practitioners say “I have this capacity” to almost everything. This seldom happens with mature organizations, because they know enough to realize that they don’t “know it all.” As my high school biology teacher, Dr. Granville, would say, “You don’t know you don’t know something until you don’t know it.” Or was that Yogi Berra?… In any event, my point is, sometimes you don’t realize just how complex a capacity is until you’ve been trying to build it. Thank goodness I have a social scientist helping me sort through all of these nuances so I can identify how to most effectively build and leverage capacity.

Although capacity building must respond to what your audiences want and need, there is a somewhat staged approach to building forest and fire technical capacity. That’s where my co-author, Forest Schafer, comes in. Take it away, Forest!

There’s Nuance, and Then There Are Patterns

Allison’s description of capacity makes it clear that there are many different ways to think about capacity. What we need (or what we think we need) is shaped by the context of the places that we work and the people we work with. In the Lake Tahoe Basin, the partner organizations of the Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team just published the Tahoe Forest Action Plan. The Plan details how partners are approaching capacity building from the standpoint of a multi-organizational program.

Even within a local collaborative group, we have lots of ideas about what we need and how to build it. By building a framework for how we interpret capacity, we can communicate more clearly, partner more effectively and align our funding to better meet our forest management and fire adapted community goals.

Forest Landscape Management Cycle.png

INVESTMENTS in personnel, facilities, equipment, and contracts build capacity to proceed through the seven stages of the forest landscape management cycle. By strengthening partnerships, technology, and organizational efficiency (the hub) land managers can further build sustainable capacity and proceed through the cycle at greater pace and scale. Image credit: Tahoe Conservancy

“In order to do more projects, we need more people.” I’ve repeated this sentiment often. Just as Allison described, we often find ourselves yearning for additional human capital. Indeed, human capital is one of the most essential components of the forest landscape management cycle. But it’s been helpful for us to deliberately consider exactly why we need more people. Often, discussions about capacity focus on implementation and technical expertise. By broadening our perspective, we’ve gained a more complete understanding of where and how we need to invest to accelerate community preparedness and landscape restoration work.

The cycle begins with assessing and strategizing (stages 1 and 2 in the above graphic). Without these crucial first steps in managing landscapes, how will we know if we’re doing the right work in the right places? How else will we know how much additional capacity we need to build? These first steps may seem daunting, but there are already hundreds of such assessments throughout California and the United States. These documents prioritize projects and actions to help prepare communities for wildfire. They also define the boundaries of the wildland-urban interface as a priority landscape. The results of all this work are our Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP). Even as Lake Tahoe Basin partners are conducting large-scale whole-landscape planning, we constantly refer to our CWPP priorities to guide our work.

Next comes project planning, permitting and field prep (stages 3 and 4). This includes surveys for biological and cultural resources, and other critical but time-intensive steps that we must complete before we can implement projects. In these stages, staff limitations and the need for human capital are just as important as the needs for implementation (stage 5).

On to restoration byproduct utilization (stage 6). The lack of markets in the Lake Tahoe Basin for biomass and small-diameter wood that can be converted to innovative products, such as cross-laminated timber, severely limits economically viable restoration opportunities. In this case, we can build capacity using existing funding by partnering with the private sector. This helps to support existing facilities and pilot emerging technologies that simultaneously bolster restoration projects and the Basin’s economy.

Finally, monitoring and adaptive management (stage 7) is a stage that we always discuss, but it often falls by the wayside when time and funding are limited. Nonetheless, it’s a vital bridge to revisiting and updating previous assessments to make the best use of limited resources.

Investments in personnel, facilities, equipment and contracts build capacity to proceed through the seven stages of the forest landscape management cycle. But there are other elements to build capacity that don’t always require the same large investments. By strengthening partnerships, technology and organizational efficiency we can proceed through the cycle more quickly, and at less cost. I like to think of these as the hub upon which the capacity wheel turns.

The hub capacities are especially important when we’re thinking not just about the capacity of a single organization, but the capacity of multiple agencies and non-profit partners all steering in one direction and moving towards a similar goal. That’s how we get our bigger boat! Moving from individual projects to entire landscapes requires improving organizational processes, including training, planning and contracting, as well as how partners work across jurisdictions. Redesigning these systems with collaboration in mind creates operational efficiencies, expands available resources and builds trust and political will.

Allison and the Watershed Center are taking on the daunting task of supporting state-wide capacity building to help meet California’s bold forest management goals. Thankfully, they’re not starting from scratch and are considering how to best leverage the knowledge and expertise of diverse organizations and practitioners throughout the state. For more, I’ll hand it back over to Allison.

Leveraging the Existing Wheel

Generally speaking, capacity building best practices frown upon “doing the work for someone else.” However, there are many instances when providing direct technical assistance is effective and appropriate. Take burn bosses for example. Yes, we need (more) burn bosses in California. But every organization that wants to conduct a prescribed fire that requires a burn boss to oversee the project doesn’t necessarily need a certified burn boss on staff. We’re evaluating prescribed fire opportunities to understand who wants to get more burning done and what they need to accomplish it. A lot of times that “need” is more training, so we’re planning to host workshops on conducting prescribed fire on private lands. But as organizations acquire equipment and general skills, they still may need a burn boss every few months to lead more technical or legally rigorous burns. In those instances, deploying a burn boss to provide a technical service (i.e., act as the certified burn boss on a burn) is effective and economic.

Ripping Down the Fence

If you’re doing it right, capacity building work unearths systems of power and oppression. A common visual of the difference between these two strategies is represented in the image below and concludes that equality can only work if everyone has the same resource whereas equity has the ability to offer a fairer outcome. But the image below has the potential to portray the issue or problem inherent to the people themselves (i.e., their heights are different, not their circumstances).


Image credit: Angus Maguire, Story Based Strategy

The thing is, and the evolution of images support it, it’s not that our people and partners stand at different heights. Capacity, in our case, relates to resources, skill sets and opportunities. And in those instances, it’s not something intrinsic like height that allows or doesn’t allow some people to see over the fence. The playing field itself isn’t even, nor is the fence. Check out the updated visual of equality vs equity below, taking our environment and setting into account. I also recommend trying out Story Based Strategy’s toolkit on building an image that resonates with your work!


Image credit: Paul Kuttner, Cultural Organizing

However, we all know it’s not that simple. Capacity building isn’t just about passing people “boxes.” If it were, that would mean we’re accepting the status quo and the oppression that comes with it. And, really, when have fire practitioners just accepted the status quo? If we want real change—truly, increased capacity—we’ve gotta break down the fence. And everyone’s fence is different, and needs different tools to “remodel.” Ideally, we’re leveling the playing field as well. Thankfully, a lot of you already know how to use hand tools!


Justice. Image credit: Paul Kuttner, Cultural Organizing

Tribes within California are an excellent example of a group of people standing on “lower ground.” Racism, public policies and issues (such as forcing tribes to sign a waiver of sovereignty before they can accept certain types of funding) are just a few ways that their ground is lower and their fence is higher. Not to mention that many tribal practitioners are still processing their ancestors being imprisoned or killed simply for stewarding their land with prescribed fire. So, as non-indigenous Californians ramp up their investments in prescribed fire, there is some serious remodeling that needs to happen with that fence. Boxes, in this case, are more like bandages rather than holistic care. I’m hopeful that our assessment and growing partnerships provide us with a better understanding of what capacities indigenous practitioners have and need. I’m hopeful that we can better identify where the fence is too tall, where the ground is uneven and how we can work together to impart change where it’s most needed.

Our team expects to have the results from our capacity assessment published by January 2020. Please message me if you’d like to be on our distribution list and hear how we go about “remodeling the playing field and ripping down the fence!” It’s bound to be an enlightening and humbling journey.

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