The best technical assistance providers will have:
- Hands-on experience: proven skills and expertise at building similar organizations and solving similar problems.
- Cultural sensitivity: alert to the ethnic, economic, gender, age, historical and other dimensions that uniquely color each community and organization.
- Understanding of the neighborhoods field: awareness of the distinctive concerns of resident-controlled organizations and low-income neighborhoods. Understanding of how “first felt needs” typically connect to core problems.
- Understanding of legal requirements: payroll taxes (for staffed organizations); taxes, permits and other regulations for rallies, bazaars and other grassroots fundraising; restrictions on legislative and political activity (for organizations with tax-exempt status).
- Proven expertise as a consultant: has this person been useful as a consultant to other neighborhood groups?
- Training ability: remember, the TA provider’s job is not to act as staff but to train the organization’s members.
- Openness: the TA provider should not assume that her former organization is the model that the group she’s now assisting should follow. Look out for consultants who play to their own strengths rather than to this neighborhood group’s weaknesses: consultants who interpret the situation so that they can respond with their skills. As the proverb says, just because you have a hammer doesn’t mean all problems are nails.
- Flexibility: able to flow with the organization’s changes in internal dynamics or in external neighborhood concerns.
- Good listening skills: able to draw people out, to read between the lines, to pick up clues in body language and voice tone.
- Strong intuitive sense: quick to get a feel for what the real problems are and for what remedies and developmental techniques will work best, even when some evidence is not available.
When screening technical assistance providers:
- Don’t be insistent on (or fooled by) good presentations on paper. The best work often comes from the best fit between consultant and organization, not the glossiest written proposal and report;
- Update reference checks frequently; even the best consultants can get stale.
- When checking with organizations that the provider worked with previously, ask these questions:
- Did the organization experience lasting change from the consultant’s work?
- Did the consultation extend beyond the original contract? If so, was it because the relationship was so productive, or because a dependency was established?
- Did organization members (especially the core group that worked most closely with the consultant) feel that there was good communication with the consultant?
- Were solutions designed to fit the organization’s needs, or did the consultant operate in ways that seemed to support pat answers.
From “Using Technical assistance to Strengthen Neighborhood Grants Programs and Neighborhood Organizations” by Rainbow Research.