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Technical Assistance

Meant originally as a counterpart to FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE (itself a euphemism for “grants” or “loans”), the parallel phrase TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE has the advantage of designating helpful acts by foundations that do not entail the transfer of money, but may involve a special skill or professional service.

“We will provide financial assistance in the first year,” says one foundation planning paper, “and follow with technical assistance in Years 2 and 3.” No harm there: When that juxtaposition is the main point, the two phrases are apt enough. But when the purpose is to describe actual activity, the phrase TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE conveys almost no useful information. Other than writing a check, what isn’t technical assistance?

In actual use, the phrase (known these days almost everywhere by its initials) normally seems to mean “advice”-and not always “technical” advice, either. But somewhere in the lower bureaus of philanthropy’s sensitivity constabulary, someone in charge of official humility must have deemed “advice” too condescending. TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE, conveniently, sounds more like a visit from the electrician-cool, professional, all-in-a-day’s-work, no reflection on the customer’s essential savvy.

The trouble with this humility is that it’s misplaced. When foundations provide technical assistance, it is because they believe they have, or can purchase, important knowledge that grantees lack. The premise of most technical assistance – giving advice or instruction to those who need it – is nothing to be ashamed of. Most often, in fact, “technical assistance” assignments come wrapped in the broader objective of knowledge transfer-itself a buzz-phrase, admittedly, but one that rarely applies to a visit from the electrician. If the goal is transferring knowledge, then the process is that of teaching or advising, not of performing a “technical” task. The practitioner is therefore a teacher, consultant, trainer, or adviser.

So “instruction,” “consulting,” “training,” or “advice” are all better words than the murky phrase TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE, because they are more precise and more ordinary. Any of those words will convey, in reasonably concrete and understandable terms, just who is supposed to do what for the grantee. By contrast, TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE treats that essential information as practically a state secret.

Among these four common words, circumstances will normally dictate which to choose. “Training” and “consulting” are most often used to refer to the work of professionals-teachers, trainers, and consultants-who transfer knowledge for a living. Some technical assistance is in fact intended to be delivered by such professionals, and in those cases, “training” or “consulting” would be the best choice – as in, “The proposed grant provides money to hire a consultant” or “to send employees to a training program.” In other cases, though, the intent is not to hire a professional, but to introduce grantees to people who simply have useful expertise or experience to share. In those cases, the plain English word “advice” is made to order.


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