A year ago, Teagle made a $75,000 grant to the Partnership for After School Education (PASE) to support its Supporting Afterschool Agencies in Turbulent Times
(SAATT) initiative. SAATT emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was designed to help youth-serving organizations in New York cope with the new economic conditions, and importantly, develop plans that would ensure their stability in the future. With the grant, PASE selected 10 organizations and worked with them to develop strategic plans, identify program outcomes, facilitate staff development, strengthen information technology systems, review financial and fiscal plans, and the like. In addition, PASE ran 6 training sessions—which were open to all organizations in its network—on topics such as evaluation and assessment, strategic planning, creating collaborations and strategic alliances, working with boards, and securing funds for general operating support.
“Findings” from the SAATT initiative were detailed in PASE’s report to the Foundation, and are as follows:
Smaller, nascent agencies are often the ones most in need of assistance as well as the ones for whom individualized support can have the greatest impact. At the same time, however, providing technical assistance to small agencies presents unique challenges. These agencies often lack “the capacity to build capacity,” and the limited number of staff and high demands on leaders of these organizations means that investment in capacity-building must be flexible and well-monitored in order to be effective.
Smaller organizations typically have only one or two individuals in senior leadership positions, and unlike in larger organizations, these leaders are likely to be responsible not only for organizational management but also for supervising day-to-day program operations, often at a very “micro” level. Working with an executive director or senior leader within a multi-tiered management structure at a large organization is a very different endeavor from working with a leader who is not only responsible for the overall management of an organization but may on any given day be called upon to step in and lead an art class in place of an absent teacher, discipline or counsel an individual student, or even go to the grocery store to purchase snacks. Smaller programs also struggle significantly more with emergent circumstances. Staff departures, facilities issues, or any other major disruptions tend to take attention away from any other organizational projects until they are resolved.
A less significant challenge but still an important one to recognize is the powerful personal connection that senior leaders of small agencies—who are often the founders of their organizations as well—have with their organizations. The passion of these individuals for their work is often integral to the success of their organizations, but it can also result in the perception of professional advice as personal criticism.
It is PASE’s experience, however, that none of these challenges diminishes the desire of small organizations and their leaders for healthier management practices and systems or their recognition of the value of expert external assistance. These leaders recognize that the improvement of internal systems and the building of organizational capacity are critical to sustainability and success. This strong desire means that capacity building for small agencies can still be a success despite the challenges described above. In its experience working with these agencies through SAATT and other projects, PASE has identified the characteristics of an approach that will allow technical assistance to overcome these challenges and effect organizational change:
• Employ a joint assessment process that collaboratively identifies needs and priorities. In order for technical assistance to achieve change within an organization, agency leaders must understand the need for this change and recognize it as a priority.
• Ensure that the agency leaders understand the time and energy that will be required to achieve their technical assistance goals and are prepared to commit those resources.
• Establish a clear timeline with deadlines by which particular steps will be completed and revisit this timeline frequently. This timeline should include at least one near-term goal that is readily achievable.
• Balance setting high expectations for these agencies and adherence to the timeline with the recognition that the many competing demands on agency leaders requires flexibility. Technical assistance for small agencies may take longer than services for large agencies.
• Understand and accommodate the emotional connection of leaders to their organizations. In order to be successful, technical assistance providers must be prepared to take a personal approach in their work by findings way to engage with agency leaders, acknowledge their successes, and regularly emphasize that the purpose of technical assistance is to strengthen and sustain their program.
This is all pretty important stuff to keep in mind, even when times are not turbulent.