The issue of professionalization and strengthening of Civil Society Organizations (CSO) is as recurrent as it is necessary; there are courses given by academic institutions and organizations themselves to address this issue; there are organizations that were created for that sole purpose or that devote great part of their activities into solving this deficiency.
Even though the two are a very desirable good, they are not the same; they are often used (in this context) as synonyms and they are not. A CSO can be professional and still not be robust. On the other hand, it could be solid, at least in appearance, and not be professional. We consider it is important to understand the differences; otherwise there is a risk of giving the same medicine to two diseases that may have identical symptoms; which are different.
In a certain way, what is presented here could be similar to what Patricia Carrillo, Paola García and Mónica Tapia express in the book Institutional Strengthening of CSOs in Mexico, with respect to the two main trends in the conceptualization of institutional strengthening, but addressed from a different perspective and, we believe, that can be essential.
For those who are skeptical and think that professionalization and strengthening are the same, let’s see how the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy (RAE, due to its name in Spanish) defines them. Professionalization is the action and effect of professionalizing. Yes, that doesn’t seem to tell us much; the answer is in professionalizing, which is turning an amateur into a professional. So, when we talk about professionalizing the social sector, we refer to a group, formally established or not, that can have the best intentions and attend a necessary cause, that even when they can be professionals in one or many things, they are not in the social sector. Instead, let’s analyze how the RAE specifies that strengthening is the action and effect of strengthening; and what is to strengthen? Make stronger or more vigorous. So, there is a big difference between professionalizing CSOs and strengthening them, right?
Of course there are CSOs that need to be professionalized, others only need to be strengthened, others need both and some can exist without these two elements, although it isn’t ideal and, surely, their existence will be ephemeral. Probably this last sentence may generate controversy; before getting there it’s important to distinguish between the professionalization of the activities carried out by a CSO and the professionalization of the organization itself. To explain it simply we will use an example.
Think of an organization that is dedicated to protecting sea turtles (the cause could be anyone: people with addictions, education for children, support for people with some disease, etc.). Let’s say that this group is founded by a group of biologists that recognizes the need to protect the turtles and do something about it. Then they invite some zoologists and veterinarians and decide that they already have an adequate professional team to face this problem. And, in a way, it’s true. Surely they’ll know their migratory behaviors, reproduction times, feeding habits and all this apply in how to help them in the best way. If they want to work only with the resources they have and not take their project to a larger scale, they may not need more. The day when they consider that their own resources aren’t enough and seek support from some government agency, from foundations, companies and even from people who could give them more than a few coins, then their headaches will begin. The same will happen if they want to collaborate with other related organizations. Because they will see that, as in most things in life, certain knowledge is required to write a proposal to apply for a grant and, perhaps, their Biology studies are not good enough to develop the compliance and impact measurement reports, that keeping track of every dime that enters and leaves the organization isn’t a simple task, but essential for transparency and even to comply with legal requirements. Directing, organizing and managing this organization, which can grow step by step, also requires skills and knowledge that may go beyond those necessary to fulfill the activities carried out by that group. Then, we find an organization that, in short, is professional in its activities, but not in itself.
Likewise, we can find organizations that, since its inception, have had the support of one or several social investors who are responsible for financing the operation and administration of the organization at 100 percent and, thus, they have seen professionalization as something insignificant or, at least, secondary, and all their work is focused on carrying out their activities, without being distracted by accounting, legal or accountability issues. Again, the problem will come when those sponsors don’t want to continue giving their support or want to decrease it. And be sure that’ll happen, because there is no infinite resource.
To sum up, we can say that the professionalization of a CSO contributes to its strengthening, even when it requires additional work and that this professionalization has no direct relationship with the professional that this organization can be in carrying out its activities, but with its existence itself.