What We’ve Learned About Tech Capacity Building

This blog post is a collaboration amongst ‘technology capacity building’ practitioners, namely: Misty Avila, Beatrice Martini and Dirk Slater. We are thankful for comments and feedback from our gracious colleagues, including: Kristin Antin, Allen Gunn (Gunner), and Tom Longley.

Over the last couple of decades there has been various efforts to support non profit organisations, grassroots initiatives and funders to harness the power and promise of technology. Evolving and effective models of intermediaries have emerged during this time “to support the critical work of nonprofit organizations, grass roots initiatives to leverage technology on their terms to do their work” under several different monikers, including Circuit Riders, eRiders, Data Sherpas and Tech Mentors, amongst others. This article is designed to define the focus and capture some of the learnings of these effective models by exploring the concept of ‘Technology Capacity Building.’ By better defining this concept, we hope to make it clearer as to why this practice is important to non-profit/civil society organisations and how it can power up your work.

What is Tech Capacity Building?

We refer to the definition of capacity as “the power to do or understand something”.

Tech Capacity Building is the work done to improve an organisation’s ability to accomplish its mission, helping it understand how technology can (or cannot) support its efforts.

The organisations which can benefit from working with a Tech Capacity Builder can be of very different kinds: from big and small non-profit organisations, to grassroots initiatives and funders. Collaborations with organisations can result in technology planning and technology decision making, resource development, facilitation, organizational and leadership development, proposal development, community building and community engagement, along with strengthening organisational strategies.

Where does it come from?

A Circuit Rider circa 1995

A Circuit Rider circa 1995

We draw on methodologies from a number of different sources. A clear line can be drawn from the Circuit Riding movement in the US, as individuals involved with non-profit technology at that time have influenced and mentored many current practitioners who are working around the world today. We are aware that this is a very western/US centric perspective, we include it here to provide depth and exemplify how our work has evolved. Certainly wisdom has come from many different sources around the world.

Circuit riding emerged in the US in the mid-’90s as a way to give progressive-leaning non-profits, who had been traditionally wary of technology, a leg up in utilising the Internet. The name derives from 19th century preachers in the Western US, who were shared among congregations who couldn’t afford to have their own preacher. Modern Circuit Riders are technology evangelisers, translators connecting geeks to non-geek work and, more than anything else, being mentors. A Circuit Rider is essentially a roving technology consultant with a big difference: instead of being centred around a particular technology, Circuit Riders are focused on an issue. A Circuit Rider’s goal is to help an organisation achieve their mission or win a campaign by using technology as a tactic, rather than the starting point being the technology.

The circuit rider model evolved and became known as ‘eRider’ as it was established as an international network focused on supporting the efforts of NGO’s working in developing and transition countries. Eventually, as new platforms emerged specifically geared towards Civil Society, the model became utilised to help spread specific platforms like Ushahidi and FrontLine SMS.

Today there are a handful of organisations (see ‘resources’) and individuals that are platform neutral and work from the same values and evolved methodologies that were initially utilised by circuit riders.

Our values

Technically, these statements can only be fully attributed to the people who authored this text, and we don’t assume that everyone who works in the field would agree with us. However, recognising that many colleagues met through the years happen to share these values, we thought we could share them confident that most of them would resonate with a wide number of practitioners.

  • Our goal is improving an organisation’s or a group’s capacity to accomplish its mission and getting them to understand how and if a technology can help them do it.
  • Context, strategies and accessibility should drive the choice of tools and solutions
  • The communities we work with ultimately hold the highest degree of wisdom on how to best meet their needs.
  • Questions are of enormous value and are the currency of our community.
  • Communication is the key to our partnerships. We listen and communicate often and regularly, providing clarity on roles, expertise, capacity and consistently monitor developments and progress.
  • We see ourselves as allies and community members to our partners.
  • Transparency is an essential element in how we work with clients and colleagues.
  • We openly share knowledge and our most useful learnings and welcome constructive feedback.
  • Our work should be outcome driven and goal oriented: it aims to tangibly equip the organisation it’s applied to in strengthening its profile and actions and supports it over time in achieving their goals.
  • Free and open solutions are optimal, organisations should steer clear of tools that will lock their data in and limit the options of how it can be used in the future.
  • It’s critical to see the humour in what goes wrong and stay positive.

Why Tech Capacity Building matters

  • It often comes down to getting organisations to view and discuss their work in new ways.

    It often comes down to getting organisations to view and discuss their work in new ways.

    It can help an organisation strengthen its mission, as well as short and long term goals.

  • It respects the strategy articulated by the organisation it works with and helps it identify how technology can (or cannot) fit into that as a tactic.
  • It leaves ownership over any final decisions related to technology to the organisation is works with. The Tech Capacity Builder working with it can point out if a certain option might translate into a mistake, but will ultimately leave the decision to it – unless it can be seen and proven that a specific organisational decision would put the people it’s working with in danger (for example sharing sensitive data which could harm them).
  • It equips an organisation with accessible and sustainable technology and solutions, tailored to their needs, abilities, time constraints and provides to support and training needed to the organisation to own the technology and solutions proposed (instead of being own – or limited! – by them).
  • It’s based on active listening. Its goal is not to deliver quick standard answers, but to provide solutions focusing on the very needs, goals and security of the organisation and community it’s working with.
  • It understands the importance of sustainability and maintenance of processes and resources over time.
  • It can help identify organisational strengths and challenges to work on – difficulties can be organisational development opportunities in disguise.
  • Organisations will save time and money as a result of the engagement.

Technology Capacity Building Resources

These resources are by no means exhaustive, but we provide them here to illuminate our points with real world Tech Capacity Building programmes.

Reflections and learnings from Tech Capacity Building Programmes

Resources to inform Tech Capacity Building efforts

History of Capacity Building


This is very much a work in progress, with the goal of better articulating the benefits and challenges of providing technology capacity building to non profit organisations, grassroots initiatives and funders. We’d love to hear about your own experiences, either as a practitioner or an organisation that has benefited from this practice. Also let us know if you have any helpful resources we should include. If you’d like to contact us, please leave a comment below. We look forward to hearing from you.