Technical assistance provides more than a set of skills. It provides a framework upon which community development organizations can analyze their needs, assess their strengths and weaknesses, plan, grow and help their communities to prosper.
The Community Training and Assistance Center (CTAC) is a nonprofit organization devoted to developing vision, leadership, planning and managerial expertise within low-income, urban communities throughout the United States. Since 1979, CTAC has built the capacity of hundreds of community-based organizations effectively to carry out neighborhood revitalization, including housing, economic development, education, health and human services activities. The Center is particularly interested in and committed to strengthening resident-controlled, comprehensive approaches to revitalizing inner-city neighborhoods.
Typically, CTAC’s relationship with a group begins when a board or staff member approaches the Center with a request for training or assistance around a specific issue. Groups approach CTAC at different stages of development and with agendas and circumstances that are unique. Some are run by volunteers, while others are fully staffed. Some are focused on a single area of development; others have a complex array of programs. The quality most share is that they are undergoing a major transition – in staffing, leadership, membership, budget, or programming – that has surfaced new questions or lent greater urgency to longstanding issues.
In many cases, the specific issue identified by a group is actually a symptom of a larger, more fundamental set of issues within the organization. For this reason, CTAC’s work often begins with an organizational assessment aimed at helping the group’s leaders step back from day-to-day activities, take a larger view of their organization, and uncover these underlying issues. We look at the clarity and current appropriateness of the organization’s mission and goals; the identity and structure of its leadership and the extent to which the leadership has been constant or changing; the relations between board and staff; the processes by which long- and short-term decisions are made, implemented, and evaluated; the nature, breadth, and role of the organization’s constituency; the strategic focus and coherence of the organization’s overall programming; the ways information is generated by, and flows through, the organization and constituency; and the place of the organization in the larger community and in relation to other organizations. Our findings guide the joint development of a workplan for technical assistance that aims to get at the root of organizational concerns and build effectiveness.
Keys to Effective Technical Assistance
History, time, money, attitudes and skill differences all affect the degree to which a community development organization can achieve optimal effectiveness and the speed with which this can be accomplished. Technical assistance can be helpful in broadening a group’s perspective of its problems and its options and in building necessary skills. It can only be successful, however, to the degree that both the provider and receiver of assistance use that assistance well. Technical assistance is likely to be most effective if it adheres to eight key principles:
Technical assistance must be shaped by the CDO’s agenda.
The role of a TA provider is to support a group’s priorities or to give the group the tools to analyze and clarify its priorities if necessary, rather than to press for the adoption of particular “boiler plate” approaches favored by the provider or others outside the neighborhood.
Everything starts with a plan.
Effective technical assistance follows a carefully designed strategy for meeting clearly identified goals. The plan should include a provision for regular evaluation, so that the technical assistance strategy can change to meet new needs or to deal more effectively with ongoing issues.
The technical assistance relationship is a partnership among equals.
Strategies and materials should be developed and evaluated jointly by the TA provider and the organization – they should be created with the organization, not for it. All parties share a responsibility to assess their own as well as the others’ performance and a commitment to follow through on assignments, to keep the lines of communication open and to respect boundaries of time and capacity.
Technical assistance should deal with real issues, not general topics.
Technical assistance is usually most effective when a group is provided with focused guidance and facilitation in handling current and anticipated issues rather than with generic training. Structured workshops may feel highly educational at the time, but may not significantly increase a group’s capacity to handle actual organizational issues – for example, to handle an organizational crisis that involves real people with real emotions, or, in planning, to distinguish between personal priorities and organizational ones.
Technical assistance must help develop the ability to anticipate.
Most groups focus their energy on current issues, moving from short-term decision to short-term decision, and seek assistance in resolving these issues, rather than on developing structures, processes, and skills to see ahead – to identify small problems before they become crises, to establish long-term goals and the strategies needed to realize them, to analyze and create organizational priorities rather than reacting to one crisis or opportunity after another. TA can be helpful in developing a group’s ability to control, rather than to be controlled by, its circumstances.
All key players need to be involved.
Too often, a request for technical assistance comes from a staff or board member’s frustration at unsuccessful attempts to resolve a problem with “everyone else.” For TA to work, all parties affected by a problem need not agree on the nature or cause of that problem, but they do need to share an interest in and commitment to exploring it openly and reasonably. CTAC insists that all important players be committed to and engaged actively in the technical assistance process. Part of that process, is, of course, identifying who the key players are.
Building capacity takes time.
Typically, CTAC works with a group over a period of months or even years, building skills upon other skills and adjusting emphases and approaches as the organization grows and changes. Both the amount and type of assistance needed change over time as an organization becomes better established and approaches various transitions.
Technical assistance should promote networking.
In addition to providing direct, on-site help, a technical assistance provider should be able to identify other groups that have dealt successfully with similar issues. In addition to facilitating the formation of more-or-less formal networks like the Network for Neighborhood Action and the New England At-Risk Federation of expiring-use tenants associations, CTAC looks for opportunities to connect organizations with others who can offer additional perspectives and support.
Start With Questions
An organization looking to build its capacity in the community development field should start by bringing community members together around the questions: “Where do we want to be in five years? In ten years? What do we want our neighborhood to be?” The neighborhood goals and priorities that emerge from the answers to these questions should serve as a starting point for organizational self-assessment and planning. This process will, in turn, clarify which skills the organization must develop, which processes it must strengthen and which issues it must address in order to contribute effectively to the revitalization of the neighborhood it serves. Technical assistance can be an important resource to an organization engaged in this process, helping leaders discover fundamental issues, evaluate alternatives, and build skills and knowledge to transform fragmented, deteriorated areas into thriving urban communities.
For a community development organization to shift control to neighborhood residents, a number of changes may need to occur, including:
- creating a variety of avenues through which residents can become meaningfully involved and move upward within the organization;
- identifying and addressing barriers (of language, scheduling, etc.) to broad-based resident participation;
- providing ongoing training in housing, neighborhood, and organizational issues to enable residents to play an informed and comfortable role in the organization;
- determining which decisions should be made by residents/constituents and which by staff; and
- educating professionals on the board and staff about the need for them to accept and support a strong resident role in decision-making within the organization.
This last includes an understanding that organizational and leadership development takes time and practice, and that staff who press for quick decisions in the interest of moving projects ahead quickly may not be doing their organizations a service in terms of building long-term capacity.