The field of public health is replete with technical assistance (TA) providers: national and state associations wholly dedicated to technical assistance, state and local public health agencies with technical assistance positions, and health-related nonprofits and community groups with key roles in technical assistance.
But what is technical assistance?
Defining Technical Assistance
TA is typically related to the process of capacity building—working with organizations, agencies, coalitions, or communities to enhance their capacity to bring about changes towards improved health. Activities that often fall under the heading “technical assistance” range from sharing information and providing sample materials or templates to facilitating meetings and presenting trainings.
Here is another concise definition we like: “The timely provision of specialized advice and customized support to resolve specific problems and increase client’s capacity” (Blase, 2009)
Technical Assistance through the Years
I have been in the technical assistance arena for over 30 years. Indeed, my first job fresh out of college was in the technical assistance division of a federal agency where I was responsible for working with parks and recreation entities and community groups in a 10-state region. Another job was with the Technical Assistance Center, a Colorado nonprofit that provides technical assistance around the state. And so on and so on.
Today’s social entrepreneurship, nonprofit management, and government innovation literature all emphasize impact, outcomes, and return on investment (ROI). In public health, the emphasis is on sustainable health outcomes and performance measurements.
This common focus on outcomes made me think about the impact and ROI of public health’s TA efforts. As in any other endeavor, to achieve outcomes, public health TA efforts must employ the right strategy for the situation, the right tool for the problem.
But I find that within public health, TA has evolved over time into a generic term* used a catch-all to denote any number of services provided to a community or grantee, rather than understood as a deliberately defined function (see the TA Continuum). TA efforts that are based on multi-disciplinary principles and best practices and use strategies and tools specifically designed to bring about the desired change deliver outcomes and have higher ROI.
When community or systems change is the desired outcome, an intensive technical assistance intervention is needed. (Indeed, no single training session or template results in systems change!)
Intensive technical assistance starts with a customized analysis of the situation. Based on that analysis, an agreement to govern the intervention can be developed, appropriate strategies and tools selected, and a shared understanding of what a long-term relationship between TA provider and client could look like arises.
Using the deliberate, systematic approach provided by the five steps of intensive technical assistance, public health TA providers can achieve specific outcomes and increase the ROI of their efforts. For more information on the five steps, download our article, Outcome-Driven Technical Assistance: From Process to Impact. You can also contact me with any questions at Shelli@nonprofitimpact.com or 303-223-4886 x 100.
* Note: Public health is not the only field in which the definition of TA has become nebulous!