December 2006 // Volume 44 // Number 6 // Feature Articles // 6FEA6

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Generating Self-Organizing Capacity: Leadership Practices and Training Needs in Non-Profits

Capacity building is a major goal of today's organizations (Senge, 1990). The complex problems that organizations face along with conditions of uncertainty require increased capacity to effectively respond. We propose a self-organizing capacity framework (organizational identity, information flows, and interdependent relationships) and link it to 18 leadership and organizational practices. We find that visioning, mobilizing resources, technology, and building teamwork are self-identified key training needs. Visioning and mobilizing resources are central to organizational identity; technology is necessary for information flows; and building teamwork contributes to interdependent relationships. These are shared leadership skills that build capacity within the organization.

Beverlyn Lundy Allen
Associate Professor

Lois Wright Morton
Associate Professor

Department of Sociology
Iowa State University
Ames, Iowa


Capacity building is a major goal of today's organizations (Senge, 1990). The complex problems that organizations face under conditions of uncertainty and risk require an increased ability to effectively respond.

The dynamic nature of organizations means their systems need to be able to self-organize so they can generate the capacity to cope with fast-paced change (Wheatley, 1999). Characteristics of self-organization include self-reference based on organizational identity, accurate information that flows freely throughout the organization, and interdependent relationships built on trust and connectedness.

Self-organization requires the concept of leadership be expanded beyond the individual to the group. Leadership development stimulates people to think critically and to identify new solutions to achieve current and future goals. Decentralized forms of leadership that involve teams of people working on common projects become more critical as organizations seek to become creative and innovative. Organizations that develop core skills that support shared leadership among groups members are more likely to allow individuals at all levels to be engaged in decision-making and actions that benefit the whole organization (Senge, 1990; Wheatley, 1999).

Many organizations served by Cooperative Extension are struggling to develop leadership and an organizational climate that enable the group to respond to change. These organizations depend on both paid and volunteer staff and must understand the different sets of leadership skills each needs in order to create an effective group or agency. In this article, we summarize a survey of leadership practices and related training needs identified by several types of public and non-profit organizations served by the Extension Services in Iowa. These findings offer a framework for thinking about how to increase self-organizing capacities through leadership practices.


Over the past decades scholars have argued for new models of leadership (Allen, 1997; Bryson & Crosby, 1992; Kotter, 1990; Sandmann & Vandenberg, 1995; Taylor, 2004). Kotter (1990) contends that old models of leadership produce consistency and order to manage control--rather than motivation and movement to adapt and embrace change. The former is based on models of scientific management, whereas the latter suggest models based on transformative leadership.

Sandmann & Vandenberg (1995) build on the theoretical work of transformative leadership (see Burns, 1978), but argue that it is the assumptions behind the theory that need to be questioned. Transformational leadership carries an expectation that members of the group interact to meet the needs of both leaders and followers while transforming "one another to higher levels of motivation and morality" (p. 20). However, embedded in transformational leadership is the assumption that "the leader is more skillful in evaluating followers' motives, anticipating their responses to an initiative and estimating their power bases" (Burns, 1978, p. 20).

Transformational leadership shifts leadership's theoretical foundation. It does not adequately address unequal power relations by elevating "the leader" above followers. This dominant-subordinate approach to leadership limits organizational capacity for self-renewal and offers little support for moving leadership training programs beyond individual skill building (Senge, 1990). Team-building, collaboration, and learning organizational practices serve as evidence that organizations are recognizing the inadequacy of hierarchical leadership models (Gruidl & Hustedde, 2003; Ladewig & Rohs, 2000; Sandmann & Vandenberg, 1995; Senge, 1990; Yukl, 1998).

According to Seevers, Treat, Cummings and Wright (1996), Extension Services has not kept up with our fast-paced society. A 1990 national study of Extension leadership programming, (Paxson, Howell, Michael, & Wong, 1993) suggests that "Extension staff tends to teach skills associated with stable social order and similarities in social values . . . and give less emphasis to leadership dealing with change, diversity and conflict, transformational visionary leadership. . . . " Sandmann and Vandenberg (1995) call for a new framework for 21st Century Leadership whereby "leaderful" organizations shift the focus from individual positional leaders to group centered approaches to leadership.

Recent research (Taylor, 2004) identifies 10 states that have moved to using teams in Extension programming with some success in generating self-organizing capacity. However, Extension professionals may not know whether volunteers or employees in the organizations they serve have the necessary skills for self-renewal. Without this knowledge, it is difficult to identify leadership skill development strategies and training that could lead to an increased capacity to address organizational change and to solve group problems. In response to the growing need for relevant programs that meet Extension's customer expectations, we gathered information from organizations themselves.

Research Study

In 2002, an assessment instrument was developed and pilot tested to benchmark and track leadership practices and skills within groups. Then, 578 groups and agencies were selected from within the 114 communities randomly sampled from Iowa communities by the Iowa State University Rural Development Initiative (RDI) in 1994 and 1997. These 114 communities were derived from a 1994 random selection of one rural community (pop. 500-10,000 and not contiguous to metropolitan center) from each of Iowa's 99 counties and a 1997 random selection of 11 cities from Iowa's 22 small cities (pop. 10,000 to 50,000), and four of Iowa's eight metropolitan cities with populations over 50,000 (see Besser et al., 1998; Rice, 1998).

In this study of leadership, seven types of public agencies and non-profit organizations were purposively identified for the survey. These types were selected to represent community organizations that are frequently found in small and medium-sized communities and served by Extension professionals. These included: fire and rescue services, the United Way, churches, Community Empowerment Boards, Chambers of Commerce, Soil and Water Conservation District Office, and Office of Human Services.

Several of the 114 communities did not have all types of groups (e.g., Chamber of Commerce, Community Empowerment Board, or United Way). Some towns did not have Chamber of Commerce; if they had an economic development committee the chairperson was surveyed. Community Empowerment Boards are regional and not found in every community. Simple random sampling procedures were applied when more than one office was present in the town for one type of organization, for example, fire and rescue services and churches. Surveys were addressed to the positional leader of the group (e.g., executive director, pastor, commissioner, chairperson, or program coordinator).

A total of 578 groups were surveyed consisting of 111 fire and rescue services, 34 United Ways, 111 churches, 61 Community Empowerment Boards, 66 Chambers of Commerce or economic development committees, 98 Soil and Water Conservation District offices, and 97 Offices of Human Services.

The Dillman (2000) three-phase mail survey method was used. A cover letter and 4-page questionnaire consisting of 31 closed-end questions were sent in May 2002. Two weeks after the initial mailing, postcards were sent to everyone thanking those who had already returned their questionnaires and asking participation from those who hadn't. Two weeks after the postcards, replacement questionnaires were sent to those who had not yet returned original questionnaires. Altogether, 320 of the 578 questionnaires sent out were completed and returned, yielding a return rate of 55%.


Benchmarking Leadership Practices

Results from this survey offer 18 benchmarks for understanding the extent to which leadership practices that build group capacities are occurring in some Iowa groups and organizations. In Figure 1, the benchmarks are clustered into five conceptual areas: 1) mission, goals, planning, and evaluation 2) communication exchange, 3) trust and connectedness, 4) community networks, and 5) decision-making.

Figure 1.
Organizational Practices

Organizational Practices

Mission, Goals, Planning, and Evaluation

Respondents who were surveyed overwhelmingly reported that their groups have a shared, clearly understood mission (74.9%) and agreement on goals and objectives (69.4%). Over 50% said they have well-developed organizational plans that are followed; conversely, almost 14% said they do not have well-developed plans. Almost 42% of the respondents reported that they have built evaluation into most of their activities. A little over 24% say they do not have evaluation follow-up for their activities.

Communication Exchange

Five items represent the patterns of communication that exist in the surveyed organizations. People freely talk with each other regardless of organizational positions and information is widely shared across the organization offer a measure of transparency of the communication network. Over 70% of the respondents think that information in their organization is widely shared. Further, sensitive information such as everyone in the organization having access to the group's financial condition is generally shared (73%). Communication cannot be successful unless there is a listener. Respondents, in general, think that people in their organization listen to each other (68.7%).

Finally, about 60% say the quality of information that circulates among group members is usually accurate.

Trust and Connectedness

Trust relations among individuals are essential for effective communication and organizational capacity to solve group issues. Four questions represented trust relational practices: members trust each other, differences of opinion among members are encouraged and respected, conflict keeps us from doing anything, and people have free access to each other. Overall, trust relations are strong in their organization.

According to respondents, people have free access to one another (86.4%); and conflict is not a barrier to accomplishing the group's goals (74.6%). Further, 67.7% report that differences of opinion among members are encouraged or respected and members trust each other (66.3%).

Community Networks

Community relationships outside the group bring in new information and resources that build the capacity of the organization to innovate. Almost 68% of the respondents report strong networks to the greater community through collaboration; 7.9% say that collaboration with other organizations does not occur frequently. Forty-six percent report that group information is widely shared across their community; 13.2% report that information is not widely shared.


Decision-making practices reflect the kind of leadership within a group and the level of member involvement in guiding the direction of the group. As indicated, 69.1% of the surveyed respondents say that their leadership is effective and shared when appropriate. Respondents were likely to report that members are highly involved in decision-making (67.4%). Further, a little more than half (57.8%) say members are involved in decision-making at every level. This suggests that decisions are likely to be shared among group members.

Overall, many of the organizations have clear missions and goals, strong trust relations, communicate well within the group and across their community and involved in decision-making.

Identifying Leadership Skills for Capacity Building

In the study, we ask a series of questions specifically about training needs around a group of selected skills. Building a portfolio of skills is key if organizations are to respond quickly to both new opportunities and uncertainty in the environment (Wheatley, 1999). Figure 2 offers a summary of skill training needs for paid staff and volunteers as reported by respondents.

Figure 2.
Training Needs:Volunteers vs. Paid Staff

Training Needs:Volunteers vs. Paid Staff

Over one-third of those surveyed perceive that paid and volunteer staff need skill in mobilizing resources such as people, dollars, and time. Other high-priority skill training needs for paid staff include technology and information systems (33.2%), building teamwork within the organization (32.3%), visioning the future of the organization (29.7%), and evaluating programs (29.7%).

More than a quarter of the respondents think that paid staff need skill training in managing conflict (28.8%), building partnerships within the community (27.2%), and greater communication skills (25.3%). Other paid staff skills that were identified as training needs are evaluation of group processes (18.7%), group facilitation skills (18.4%), decision-making processes (15.5%), and meeting skills (12.7%).

Overall, respondents were more likely to identify volunteer training needs as greater than paid staff training needs. This is not surprising because paid staff are usually hired for specific skills. Volunteers bring energy and passion for the mission but not necessarily specific skills needed to accomplish all facets of the organization mission and goals.

A large number of respondents perceived that their volunteers need skills in visioning (38%), building teamwork (34.5%), building partnerships within the community (34.2%), and communication and information exchange (28.5%). Other skills identified as needed by volunteers were evaluation of programs (29.4%), managing conflict (25.9%), and skills in technology and information systems (24.1%) and decision-making (23.7%). Fewer respondents viewed group facilitation (20.9%), evaluation of group process (19.3%), and meeting skills (18.4%) as needed for their volunteers.

Although respondents were more likely to identify volunteer training needs as greater than the needs for paid staff (based on percentages), Table 1 suggests a different interpretation. When we compare skill areas and then rank these we find more similarities than differences.

Table 1.
Training Needs by Percent and Rank

Volunteer Staff Paid Staff
Skill Area Percent Rank Skill Area Percent Rank
* Mobilizing resources 40.8 1 * Mobilizing resources 35.4 1
Visioning 38 2 Technology 33.2 2
* Building teamwork 34.5 3 * Building teamwork 32.3 3
Building partnerships 34.2 3 Visioning 29.7 4
* Evaluation of programs 29.4 4 * Evaluation of programs 29.7 4
Communication 28.5 5 Managing conflict 28.8 5
Managing conflict 25.9 6 Building partnership 27.2 6
Technology 24.1 7 Communication 25.3 7
Decision making 23.7 8 Evaluation of group process 18.7 8
Group facilitation 20.9 9 Group facilitation 18.4 8
Evaluation of group process 19.3 10 Decision making 15.5 9
Meeting skills 18.4 11 Meeting skills 12.7 10
Other 4.4 12 Other 5.4 11

First, the eight priority skill areas are identical for both volunteers and paid staff as indicated by the broken line separating the skills with the highest percentages. Second, we ranked the skills for volunteers and staff to compare priorities across groups. (Areas with same rank are based on percentages). Both volunteers and paid staff have the same rank order for mobilizing resources, building teamwork and evaluation of programs.

The four skill areas receiving the lowest percentage points are also the same for both volunteers and staff. These include decision-making, group facilitation, evaluation of group processes, and meeting skills. While decision-making and facilitation skills appear to be more important for volunteers than for paid staff, they nevertheless were not deemed as top priority for either group.

Table 2 presents a framework for thinking about how the eight organizational practices and identified skill training needs correspond with the dimensions of self-organizing capacity. As mentioned earlier, characteristics of self-organizing capacity include self-reference, which is based on organizational identity, open information that flows freely throughout the organization, and interdependent relationships.

Table 2.
Framework Towards Self-Organizing Capacity

Self-Organizing Capacity Organization Practices Skill Set
Organization Identity Missions Visioning
Goals Mobilizing Resources
Planning Evaluation of Programs
Information Flows Communication Exchange Technology
Decision Making Communication
Interdependent Relationships Trust and Connectedness Building Teamwork
Community Networks Building Partnerships
  Managing Conflict

We start with the three dimensions for self-organizing capacity offered by Wheatley (1999): organization identity, information flows, and interdependent relationships. We then match the eight organizational practices areas (developed from the original 18 items in Figure 1) to each of the dimensions of self-organizing capacity.

The priority skill training needs are then grouped (skill sets) in relation to the organizational practices. For example, the skill sets resource mobilization, visioning, and evaluation of programs appear to be a good fit with mission, goals, and planning. At first glance, resource mobilization may not be an obvious choice for this skill set. However, resources (people, time, money, etc) are necessary to implement strategic plans.

Researchers (Wheatley, 1999; Senge, 1990; Sandmann & Vandenberg, 1995; Taylor, 2004) suggest that the collective approach to leadership moves more slowly and takes a commitment of resources to support the process. There must be a commitment to personnel time, training, and financial support. As the organization matures and strengthens its core competencies, it becomes more efficient in the use of its resources, creates a stronger tie to its identity, and is better able to plan and evaluate programs related to its mission (Wheatley, 1999).

The framework connects the components in a simplistic fashion, but the dynamic nature of organizational processes suggests a more complex relationship between and among all of the components. For example, articulating a vision, fostering acceptance of goals, and support for needed resources have a positive impact on communication exchanges and building trusting relationships (Jones & George, 1998). As members of the organization strengthen their collective skills and employ these in a shared environment, creative ideas emerge, webs of relationships unfold, and communications have new meaning (Wheatley, 1999). Hence, there is a resiliency to changing environments and openness to new possibilities.

The old image of leadership is changing significantly as contemporary views focus on clusters of people learning together, working together, and growing together (Allen, Morton, & Li, 2003). We view this type of leadership as capacity building, that is, organizations operating through patterns of group relations, acquiring core skills to address change, and taking action in a shared leadership environment.


Critiques of past leadership models suggest that when all members become partners in the system, they create webs of influence rather than chains of command, they mobilize resources that include people traditionally left out of the leadership process, and they generate the capacity to collectively problem solve (Wheatley, 1999). Although it has been substantiated that organizations and communities do work more effectively in groups (Sandmann & Vandenberg, 1995; Yukl, 1998), models that connect theory and research to practice are lacking. Further, Extension professionals need alternative models that can be applied to leadership programming with organizations.

Our research has examined individual organizations in rural places. However, these same concepts parallel civic structure theory (Morton, 2003) that predicts community capacity to solve problems based on the organizational capacities of multiple groups within a locale. These communities of place have similar leadership needs and can learn from our findings of organizations to build greater capacities to self-organize and effectively respond to change.

While this assessment offers only a snapshot of how a number of public agencies and private organizations see their current leadership practices and related training needs, our findings suggest that organizational practices and skill needs are interrelated. We find that all members of the organization, volunteers and paid staff alike, need similar skill training to move the organization towards self-organizing capacity.

This framework provides a starting place for Extension professionals in developing strategies for leadership training programs that can facilitate efforts toward capacity building in groups, organizations, and communities.

We recognize that more research is needed to fully understand the leadership practices and the skill sets necessary to move groups and communities forward in building capacity to collectively problem solve. While this research is limited to select groups in Iowa, it does provide information about how organizations perceive their current practices and leadership training needs. It is our premise that in order to do a better job in developing leadership programs, we need to ask the question: Leadership for what? The answer is best garnered from the customers we serve.

This investigation adds to our existing knowledge base and assists in the development of organizational and community leadership programs that provide the appropriate mix of skills for groups that want to be more effective in responding to the rapid changes in today's environment.


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