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Technical Assistance and Capacity Building: What’s the Difference?

Three adults chatting at a table.

The Region 8 Comprehensive Center (CC) offers capacity-building technical assistance (TA) to state and local education agencies in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio. But what is capacity building and how is it different from TA? We asked a few of the Region 8 CC TA Specialists  to explain, in their own words, how capacity building diverges from TA. 

Rose Buckley: I personally view capacity building as a more collaborative learning process that supports knowledge and skill building among all participants involved. TA implies “helping or assisting” which suggests that some people’s knowledge or expertise is centered and valued, while others are viewed as lacking and need to be taught. Instead, capacity building centers on the process of making meaning together, where all are engaged in a process of inquiry, critical thinking, relationship-building, reflection, and creativity to solve problems together. To engage in the process of capacity building, all participants are both teachers and learners, who collaborate to solve problems that transform all who are involved.

Kyle Snow: Both TA and capacity building support critical client needs, but how they do so, and sometimes, what they focus on differs. I think of TA as direct application of expertise to solve an identified, often finite in scope challenge. Capacity building also applies expertise, but often it is applied in partnership with the client to specify the challenges and build an approach that expands on the clients’ current systems and resources. Capacity building is more “doing with” than “doing for,” and thrives under a longer-term commitment and engagement.

Amanda Trainor: Sometimes, TA and capacity building get used somewhat interchangeably (including by me!). But when I think about what they really mean, I would say that TA is what you do in order to cause capacity building. In other words, by providing TA (in the form of actions like giving advice, modelling certain practices, curating and creating resources, being a thought partner) we build capacity (that is, the people we are helping get better at their jobs).  

Key takeaways:

  • Capacity building is collaborative and supports knowledge- and skill building.
  • Capacity building allows all to be engaged in a process of inquiry, critical thinking, relationship-building, reflection, and creative problem-solving.
  • Capacity building is “doing with,” not “doing for”.
  • TA is a direct application of expertise to solve an identified challenge.
  • TA is a precursor to capacity building.
  • Providing TA allows capacity building to take place.