Decision Points in Technical Assistance
Make versus buy
A critical decision point for foundations, funders and their intermediaries (i.e., NPOs or Coordinating Offices) is determining the ramifications of hiring program staff with content expertise or subcontracting with outside experts to provide content expertise (i.e., the make versus buy decision). There are pros and cons to each approach and a foundation should understand how each approach will impact the work of the intermediary and the ability of the grantees to succeed. For AF4Q, the NPO contracted with outside experts across the programmatic areas to deliver TA that the NPO did not have the capacity to deliver. Sub-contracting for expertise the NPO did not internally possess allowed for the NPO to flex available TA up or down on a year-to-year basis; however, this decision meant increased administrative (i.e., financial and contractual) oversight, as well as sophisticated processes to monitor, track, and coordinate TA providers. At any point in time, the NPO engaged an average of 20 organizations/experts to provide technical assistance resulting in approximately 50 percent of the NPO’s annual budget being dedicated to TA.
The AF4Q NPO contracted directly with TA providers rather than develop contracts between the needed TA providers and RWJF. Doing so provided the NPO with a better sense of the TA provider’s spend-down rates, available resources, and capacity. Direct contracting also made it easier to coordinate TA requests from the Alliances with the scopes of work approved for the fiscal year. Having TA contracts fall under the NPO’s purview sent a strong and consistent message to TA partners about accountability and coordination.
Global versus customized
As grantees begin their work on a project, more generalized and broad TA (i.e., webinars, issue briefs, etc.) may be needed since grantees may just be starting to work in focus areas and have limited expertise; this was the experience of AF4Q Alliances. As a result, a certain amount of global TA may be helpful during the initial, start-up phases. On average, the AF4Q NPO estimates that 25-30 percent of the TA budget was allocated for “global” TA products that were broadly applicable across the communities.
However, since AF4Q was a place-based strategy rooted in a collective impact model, substantial differences existed between Alliances in terms of the type and intensity of TA needed. Given the diversity and varying levels of organizational and programmatic maturity across the 16 AF4Q communities, it was important that TA be customized for the individual markets or grantees. In response, the researchers and consulting firms providing TA had to dramatically adapt their approach and provide more customized TA. Customized TA also meant that the Alliances could work intensively with a few TA providers (e.g., on-site visits and multiple calls) or elect to access less intense TA (e.g., conference calls and remote coaching). Alliances were integrally involved in shaping the scope of work for each of its TA providers, which helped to ensure that deliverables were valuable and relevant to Alliances and their communities.