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Community Needs Assessment: The Resources and Examples Your Organization Needs

Free Community Needs Assessment Kit - Checklist, report outline, assessment & action plan

What is a Community Needs Assessment?

A community needs assessment is a way of collecting data and surveying stakeholders to understand gaps in community services, as well as the strengths and assets available in your community.

Whether you’re developing a new volunteer program or reviewing an existing project, it’s important to know what your community actually needs and the resources available to you. That’s where a community needs assessment comes in; it can be used to inform and improve any community development initiative.

In this article, we’ll dive into how to conduct a community needs assessment and best practices for building your program around this assessment. Plus, we’ll share valuable resources, including examples and free templates to download. 

Article Contents: 

Community Needs Assessment Defined

A community needs assessment is a systematic process of identifying the needs or gaps in service of a neighborhood, town, city, or state, as well as the resources and strengths available to meet those needs.

Charitable organizations, nonprofits, and volunteer programs like yours can analyze community needs to help guide decision-making and resource allocation while involving community members in the process.

A needs assessment requires a multi-step strategy that typically involves defining a population and gathering data based on a set of indicators.

Now that you know what a community needs assessment is, let’s uncover the why, when, and who of your strategy. 

Free Download

Download everything you need to write your own community needs assessment -

  • Assessment Checklist - Guide you through the process of conducting and reporting your community needs assessment
  • Assessment Form - Survey community members ("participants") to help identify gaps in services based on their unique viewpoints and expertise.
  • Report Outline - Follow this outline to compile your report and guide key decision-making.
  • Action Plan Template - Strategize your response to the assessment findings.

What Are Community Needs?

The list below is some of the needs you’ll encounter and measure when conducting your assessment. 

But what are community needs, anyway?

Local community needs are gaps between the services that exist for a population and the services that should exist. 

Community organizations typically categorize community needs into five groups: 

  1. Perceived Needs - Perceived needs are gaps in services based on what individuals feel about their own needs or the needs of the community Organizations can learn about perceived needs by speaking directly to community members through avenues such as surveys, focus groups, or town meetings. 
  2. Expressed Needs - A perceived need becomes an expressed need when a number of individuals take similar action. For example, a number of community families are seeking affordable local daycare services because the current services are at capacity. Be mindful of the false assumption that all people with needs always seek help.
  3. Normative Needs - Normative needs are identified based on a set of agreed-upon criteria or standards. Let’s say a state-wide authority establishes the current standards for public housing; a community may identify a need for improved local public housing based on these criteria.
  4. Absolute Needs - These needs are deemed universal, including those for survival. Examples of absolute needs include shelter, food, water, safety, and clothing. Many organizations and community leaders look to prioritize absolute needs over others. 
  5. Relative Needs - Relative needs are identified based on equity. A relative need exists when two groups or communities with similar characteristics do not receive similar services. Students from School A who receive free lunches reported being happier at school. The program determines that School B should also receive free lunches to improve student engagement and performance.

Anybody working in a service-driven organization knows that communities can experience all types of needs, even at the same time! 

However, categorizing your community’s needs will help you understand those that are most pressing and important to your community. 

Now that we have a deeper understanding of the types of needs in your community, let’s get into some specifics about conducting a community needs assessment.

Why Conduct a Community Needs Assessment?

What is the purpose of a community needs assessment? Why should your organization or volunteer program take the time to collect data on your community?  

Need a better way to collect volunteer data? Learn more about volunteer impact reporting 

Conducting a community needs assessment will help your organization gain a deeper understanding of your community, prioritize its resources, appeal to stakeholders like your board or donors, inform new programming, and celebrate successes. 

Here’s a deeper look at each of the benefits of a community assessment:

What are the Benefits of a Community Needs Assessment?

  • Understand your community more deeply. A community needs assessment will help you learn about the culture, social structure, gaps, and strengths of your community so that you can better serve its citizens.
  • Prioritize programs and resources. The assessment can reveal both a community’s most pressing needs and leverageable resources so that organizations can direct funding and resources to increase return on investment
  • Get stakeholders on board. Nonprofit organizations must often make the case for their programs to garner support. A community needs assessment report signals that their services and decisions are well-informed and necessary.
  • Inform new programs. Identifying community needs and assets will help you develop impactful initiatives, like your next volunteer program. Want to learn how to develop your volunteer program? Check out our guide to growing your volunteer program.
  • Celebrate success. Reporting on the state of services in a community regularly can also help you celebrate the successes of your initiatives. 

When Should You Conduct a Community Needs Assessment?

Surveying community members and identifying needs are beneficial at any stage. Here are some of the times you may want to assess community needs:

  • When planning and developing a new program or initiative 
  • During your annual or periodic review of existing projects
  • When given a mandate from a local government
  • To justify grants, funding, and resource allocation
  • To empower communities by identifying their strengths and assets 

Take the confusion out of writing a community needs assessment with our free community needs kit.

Who Should Be Involved in the Needs Assessment?

Whether you work for a government agency or manage volunteers, there are often a lot of voices in the room, especially when it comes to planning community initiatives. But uniting stakeholders will help you achieve an even greater impact than going it alone. 

Here are just some of the voices you can involve in your assessment:

  • Community members experiencing the needs. These are the folks that will benefit most from the actions you take based on your needs assessment. Whether they’re residents of a neighborhood, an underserved population, or passionate caretakers of your youngest community members, they need to be at the table to address their needs in earnest.
  • Your organization’s staff, board members, and supporters. It’s important that your entire team, including the board, colleagues, volunteer managers, volunteers, and donors are aware of your assessment. You’ll not only need their support, but also an array of voices and expertise. 
  • Social workers and human service providers. These folks have a deep understanding and empathy for affected community members. They are willing to advocate on behalf of clients and feel connected to specific causes that support community improvement. 
  • Government officials. Elected officials have significant influence and the ability to enact life-changing policies. Involving them in the process can increase buy-in from key players. 
  • Influential people. Involve directors, CEOs, presidents, and other people of professional or social influence, especially if they're widely known for their positive contributions to the community.
  • Subject matter experts. In some cases, you may need to involve experts in a particular field. Let’s say your program provides green space advocacy and park maintenance. Consider tapping into the expertise of local environmental experts to understand how your public spaces can be improved.
  • Businesses. Local companies are often poised to help address community needs because they have access to a range of resources and expertise. In some cases, local businesses actually employ community members affected by a gap in service. 

While it’s no easy task, involving these stakeholders in your community needs assessment will help take the impact of your actions to the next level. 

Community Needs Assessment Examples

Here are some examples of what a community needs assessment should look like: 

This comprehensive needs assessment from the City of San Antonio is one example of how community mapping can be used to understand a complex, city-wide need like poverty.

This United Way offers a range of community needs assessment examples that inform their regional initiatives, advocacy, and volunteer programs. The nonprofit even conducted a survey to understand the impacts of COVID on their community. 

Feeding America offers a common community needs assessment framework and strategy to ensure each agency evaluates its communities consistently.

Government organizations like the CDC and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services have also developed frameworks for community needs assessments.

Now that you’ve seen what a completed community needs assessment can look like, let’s get into how to actually conduct one!

Get free resources to help you write your own community needs assessment - Download Now

Community Needs Assessment Steps

Assessing needs in your community is a systematic process that requires planning. 

These assessments can feel overwhelming at first, but if you follow these 5 steps, you’ll have a strong grasp of your community’s needs and strengths in no time: 

  1. Define Your Community
  2. Identify Your Assets
  3. Collect Community Data
  4. Compile a Community Needs Assessment Report
  5. Create an Action Plan

Want a free community needs assessment checklist delivered to your inbox?
  1. Define Your Community

    The first step? Figure out the people and places that make up your community. Define your community by considering these questions:

    • Population - What is the demographic makeup of your community? Which community members are at risk? What assets do our community members offer?
    • Attitudes and Values - What do the people in your community care about? What beliefs are important to consider and respect? What are the local attitudes toward certain issues? What biases may some hold?
    • Place - How will your program address and respect the places that are important? What infrastructure exists? Is there an attribute of the location that should be addressed or improved?

    Defining your community can help set the scope of your assessment by giving you a sense of who should be involved.

  2. Identify Your Assets

    Your community is chock-full of helpful, knowledgeable people, important places, and useful tools. 

    As part of your needs assessment, you’ll not only identify needs and challenges, but you can also uncover the resources that are already available to the community! 

    Let’s examine these assets further.

    What Are Community Resources?

    Resources, or assets, can be anything that helps to improve the quality of life of the individuals who live in your community, from volunteers to the local library. 

    Getting enough resources is one of the hardest parts of working with a service-focused organization, but don’t overlook the assets that you already have. 

    These resources and assets can be:

    • People. Lawmakers, volunteers, community leaders, activists, and simply anyone can be an asset to a community and your organization’s efforts. 
    • Organizations and Associations. Other nonprofit organizations, local businesses, governing institutions, cultural societies, schools, and all the programs that contribute to improving the quality of life for residents are community assets. 
    • Locations. Any place, building, or landscape can be a resource. Libraries, shelters, health centers, and public gardens make communities better places to live.
    • Equipment and Tools. Objects like books, food, safety equipment, transportation, or free internet access are all tools that can improve people’s lives. 

  3. Free community needs assessment tool kit

    Why Identify Community Resources?

    While a community needs assessment serves to identify the challenges and gaps in services within a community, it can also help you understand unutilized or under-utilized resources and assets available to your organization and community. 

    Your organization may have internal resources, such as grants, volunteers, existing tools, and programs. But you can also leverage external resources to develop an effective initiative. By utilizing internal and external assets, you’ll build a more sustainable and effective infrastructure for addressing community needs.

    How to Discover Assets

    Start by identifying the resources that are readily available to you; this may include community organizations and individuals who already provide services or financial support to assess needs and address them. 

    Then, you’ll want to identify potential assets. Identifying assets is fairly straightforward. We recommend gathering your team to brainstorm potential resources:

    How to Identify Organizations and Associations

    Gather your team to brainstorm potential partnerships with associations, organizations, and other groups. Google (or your preferred search engine) and yellow pages can help you identify relevant associations in your geographical area. Other community nonprofits and volunteer centers can offer a wealth of information and referrals.

    Example A food pantry is looking to collect data on the populations most in need of free meals. So, they connect with several local ministries and homeless shelters to understand more about their clients’ needs and how to best serve them. 

    How to Identify People

    Local Facebook and advocacy groups, volunteer centers, faith-based organizations, universities, and neighborhood associations are made up of like-minded individuals who can offer their skills, expertise, or time. 

    Example An animal shelter is looking to develop an annual 5K and 1-mile dog walk to raise funds and awareness for its spay and neuter program. The shelter must identify the assets available to it to help garner interest in the event. So, the organization leverages Facebook and other community boards to identify the organizers of local dog park meet-ups and running clubs.

    How to Identify Places

    What physical locations are available to your organization? How will leveraging these spaces benefit your clients? You’ll want to list the buildings, locations, and public and private spaces available to your organization. 

    Example A neighborhood association wants to reduce gun violence in the area. A growing body of research suggests that changing environmental conditions that facilitate community violence is an effective strategy for improving safety. So, the association identifies public spaces and lots throughout the neighborhood that can be improved through cleaning, the addition of greenery and community gardens, and art installations created by residents of the neighborhood. 

    How to Identify Equipment and Tools

    Resources like computers, food donations, gardening tools, and public transportation can help you improve the quality of life for community members. 

    Example An after-school mentorship program has noticed that children who lack access to computers and the internet at home fall behind in school. The organization wants to build a program that expands access to technology and the internet for families. They identify local businesses that can donate old and unused laptops. They also list the region’s libraries that offer free internet and partner with the superintendent to identify transportation options from the district’s schools to the libraries. 

    How to Use Community Assets

    Once you’ve identified the resources available to your organization, you want to make sure they actually get used to addressing the needs that your assessment will identify. 

    Many nonprofits and volunteer programs are using an asset-based approach to community development. This approach prioritizes the resources that already exist in the community, and helps empower its members to become agents of change. 

  5. Collect Community Data

    Community Needs Assessment Surveys and Data Collection

    Your assessment should highlight the voices of those at ground level. So, what’s the best way to gather these voices? Surveys!

    Interviews, focus groups, and surveys are great data collection tools that will help you understand the perceived and expressed needs of your community. 

    Surveys are efficient at collecting lots of information, and they empower participants to get involved in community development. They can also provide both qualitative data (like observations, ideas, and feelings) and quantitative data (like statistics). 

    Collecting Qualitative Data

    Survey questions that produce qualitative data ask open-ended questions, and may look something like this:

    • In what ways do you feel your community supports at-risk youth?
    • What services and programs would you like your local library to provide
    • What time, skills, or expertise can you offer as a community center volunteer? 
    • What parks and recreation services and programs do you enjoy? Which services are relevant to you and your family? Which ones do you feel need improvement? In what ways?
    • Has food insecurity affected you or your family in the past year? If so, how?

    Qualitative data can provide your organization with a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities that exist within your community.

    Collecting Quantitative Data

    On the other hand, surveys can also give you quantitative data. Quantitative questions have limited answers that can be tallied (or quantified), giving you a quick snapshot of a topic. It’s also easier to measure, summarize, and track over time. 

    Survey questions that produce quantitative data may look something like this: 

    • On a scale from 1-10, how well do you feel your child is supported by public services? 1 = not supported at all, 10 = my child is given everything they need to succeed.
    • In the past month, how often have you used your local library’s public services? Very often, sometimes, not very often, or never.
    • How many times per month do you volunteer with the community center?
    • How many parks and recreation services have you used in the past year? 
    • Do you feel your neighborhood has access to enough healthy grocery options? Yes or No?

    The drawback of this kind of data is that you may get a more limited understanding of an issue than if you were to learn about people’s thoughts, stories, and ideas. 

  6. Looking for accurate volunteer data to use in your community needs assessment? Volunteer software can help you automatically track volunteers and report on community impact. Learn more

    Types of Community Needs Assessment Surveys

    You’ll also want to consider the type of survey that best suits your organization’s needs. Generally, there are three types of surveys:

    1. Case Study Surveys - These surveys collect information from a portion of a group of people that represent the voices of a larger group or community. Case studies are more in-depth and provide qualitative data and stories to help inform your assessment. They are effective in providing data on perceived needs.
    2. Sampled Surveys - These surveys ask a sub-group of people to answer questions that you provide. Sample surveys, when performed correctly, should reflect similar results if you would have surveyed the entire group, making sampled surveys more efficient. 
    3. Census Surveys - To conduct a census survey, you will distribute your questionnaires to every member of the population you’re hoping to learn about. Census surveys give you the most accurate information but will require more significant resources to conduct, especially if your population is vast. Therefore, a census survey is more effective when conducted in smaller groups, such as all parents at a particular school as opposed to all residents of a city. 

    The type of survey you choose will depend on the types of needs you want to assess, as well as your organization’s capacity for distributing and collecting surveys.

  8. Download a free survey template

  9. Listening Sessions and Public Forums

    Listening and participating in community gatherings like town meetings, PTA meetings, and other forums are a great way to learn about perspectives on local issues. In these cases, you or a member of your team will simply listen and record information that you feel is pertinent to your assessment. 

    This type of information gathering is useful for understanding perceived and expressed needs.

    Direct or Participatory Observation

    Sometimes, it can be helpful to understand a need or challenge firsthand. Participatory data gathering requires your team to take part in an activity, observe a gathering, or speak to community members directly in a way that is less formal than a survey. 

    You’ll need to take detailed notes, and it may help to bring a recording device with you. To collect data, visit your community’s spaces, like senior centers, shelters, and schools to observe, speak with those at the ground level, and participate in programs that already exist.

    The drawback of this method is that information is subject to participant bias, as every individual may perceive an experience differently. For this reason, multiple people representing a range of backgrounds and viewpoints should participate in the data collection process. Additionally, each voice should be weighed equitably. 

    Using Existing Data

    Gathering quantitative data can be especially time-consuming. Luckily, there is plenty of community-based data collected by experts available to you already. You may look for statistics regarding demographics, as well as incident rates, prevalence rates, and growth over time specific to the needs that emerge. The following resources are great places to start:

    • U.S. Census
    • Public health data
    • School district records

    Many local libraries house a wealth of information specific to your community. Whether you’re looking to address graduation rates or community health, quantitative data can support qualitative findings and validate anecdotal evidence.

  10. Create an Action Plan

    Community needs assessments can inform any type of community development. So, whether you’re a volunteer manager or nonprofit development officer, you’ll want to gather your team to create an action plan that drives your initiative forward. 

    The outcomes of your assessment and resulting recommendations can usually be organized into three categories: 

    Here's a free action plan template for your community needs assessment

    Policy or Guidance

    These are laws or policies that work to change behaviors. 

    Example Through public records, a local nonprofit discovers that 80% of the district’s children under the age of 18 are food insecure. The nonprofit creates a program that campaigns to lower the household income threshold to receive free school lunches. As a result of these efforts, the school board enacts new policies and increases its lunch program budget. 

    Larger System Changes

    These are strategies that result in larger systemic changes to social norms, institutions, or standard practices. 

    Example A survey reveals that 30% of low-income families with school-aged children aren’t aware of their children's eligibility for free school lunches. So, a local organization campaigns to target awareness and reaches out to community families, helping them to apply for benefits. 

    Social, Economic, or Physical Changes

    These are changes designed to influence people’s behavior. 

    Example Through conversations with local pediatricians, a nonprofit after-school program learns that many of the community’s school-aged children aren’t getting enough of the nutrients they need to thrive. So, they implement a fundraising campaign that will provide children who participate in their after-school programming with healthy snack options.

    The type of action you will take should be deeply rooted in the findings of your assessment. 

    Your process for creating an action plan may look something like this:

    1. Choose the key findings you want your program to focus on. 
    2. Identify an intended activity or response for each key finding, all working toward addressing the need. 
    3. Denote a champion responsible for carrying out each activity and establish clear deadlines. 
    4. Determine indicators of success. Indicators of success are metrics indicating that your program has completed the activity or accomplished a goal. 

    The table below is one way to organize your action plan:

    Key Findings Activity/Response Timeline Person(s) responsible Indicators of Success
    Example: Lack of follow-up support for low-income women above school age. Review our existing college prep and tutoring programs. March 1 "Horizons Tutoring" program coordinators, board members List of concrete needs of program participants after graduation (i.e. interview skills session, career prep).
    Meet with former participants in the program (strive for 7-10 participants). 2x forums, March, April Program coordinators
    Develop and send surveys Send March 1. Retrieve responses by May 1. Amy S., Dan T.

How to Compile a Community Needs Assessment Report

A community needs assessment usually results in a community needs assessment report that summarizes data, findings, and recommendations. 

How to Organize Your Assessment Findings

Before you write your report, you’ll need to gather the data from your interviews, surveys, and observations. 

What trends and patterns do you notice? To help make sense of your data, you can organize it into the following categories:

  • Strengths - The internal strengths of your organization, team, stakeholders, and initiative.

    Example Your organization maintains robust community partnerships that work collaboratively to serve low-income youth.
  • Challenges - The internal weaknesses or threats facing your organization or team. 

    Example Time constraints for volunteer management staff and lack of volunteer retention strategy lead to higher turnover rates and lower return on investment. 
  • Needs - The external challenges, needs, and gaps in service that exist in the community. Your program’s mission should work to address these needs and fill gaps.

    Example Youth programs tend to halt after graduation; there is a lack of follow-up support for low-income women above school age.
  • Opportunities - The external strengths and resources in the community available (or potentially available) to your organization. 

    Example Programs directed toward low-income women in similar communities experienced an increase in funding last year.

Community Needs Assessment Report Outline

After you compile your data, you’ll be able to populate a report that summarizes your method, findings, and recommendations. 

The report should include the following sections:

  1. Key Players: Overview of assessment participants and program partners involved.
  2. Methodology: Summary of the methods used to collect data. 
  3. Participation: Description of the demographic and number of individuals represented in the data collected. For example, How many individuals responded to your survey? How many focus group sessions were held? 
  4. Strengths and Limitations: What are the strengths of the needs assessment and its results? How are the needs assessment and its results limited? What challenges were faced during the process of conducting a needs assessment? 
  5. Data and Key Findings: This section will make up the bulk of your report. Discuss the gaps, strengths, and challenges discovered in the community needs assessment. Present data and case studies. What opportunities did you uncover?
  6. Recommendations and Next Steps: Based on key findings, what are your recommendations for addressing community gaps and needs? How will your proposed program address these needs? What information do you want to communicate to stakeholders?

Free download

Don't forget your free community needs assessment kit!

Includes an assessment checklist, as well as everything you need to plan and complete a community needs assessment for your organization.

More Examples and Resources for Assessing Community Needs

Check out these further resources, examples, and toolkits for planning and implementing your own needs assessment:

Additional Resources for Community Organizations

Community Asset Mapping Toolkit

Asset-Based Community Development

Community Needs Assessment Resource Guide

Steps for Conducting a Community Needs Assessment

Successful community-based organizations understand the importance of community assessment. When organizations like yours assess needs within a community, you develop a deeper understanding of what matters to its members and the improvements they want to see. Conducting a community needs assessment will highlight the strengths of your community and allow you to enact positive change.

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