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How to Conduct a Community Needs Assessment

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Giving back to your community and furthering your mission is one of the greatest joys of being a volunteer management leader. Creating a dedicated program for your community is a popular method of focusing on those efforts. But before your organization implements a new internal program, you may want to conduct a community needs assessment.

A community needs assessment is a tactical way of analyzing gaps in community services. It also determines the strengths and assets available in that community. The results from a community needs assessment helps you better understand what your program has to accomplish and the steps volunteers need to take.

However, creating a valuable assessment and managing the program is no easy feat— it requires a dedicated volunteer management strategy as well as some key tools to help you facilitate the program.

Keep reading to learn how to conduct a community needs assessment and explore some best practices for building your program around this assessment. Plus, we’ll share valuable resources like a community needs assessment example. 

A community needs assessment is something that all volunteer program leaders should be familiar with and confident in conducting. Ready to learn more? Let’s begin.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Community Needs Assessment Questionnaire and Report Outline

What is a Community Needs Assessment? & other Commonly Asked Questions

What are community needs?

Community needs are gaps between what services currently exist in a community and what should exist. It may be helpful to categorize gaps based on these four types of community needs— perceived needs, expressed needs, absolute needs, and relative needs.

Here are the four types of community needs you might consider for your community needs assessment.
  • Perceived needs are based on what individuals feel their needs are. Perceived needs are very subjective, and the standard may change based on each point of view. However, it’s important not to dismiss perceived needs as just opinion. Taking into account the feelings and concerns of community members is an essential component of your assessment.
  • Expressed needs are defined by what individuals have already voiced as a need. For instance, community members may have complained to local officials about broken street lights. These complaints are expressed needs and can help guide you to what needs to be accomplished. However, make sure you’re mindful of the false assumption that all people with needs seek help.
  • Absolute needs are deemed universal, including those for survival (i.e., food, water, safety, and clothing). If community members don’t even have clean, running water, this absolute need should be a top priority to consider.
  • Relative needs are rendered necessary based on equity and depend on current circumstances and the norm. The standard may also vary based on population differences and social context. For instance, providing students with access to computers isn’t necessary. But with digital literacy now so important to education, the lack of computers might be deemed a relative need.

When you conduct your assessment, you work to identify gaps and make conclusions about the needs that will ultimately help to fill them. Categorizing these needs with the above can help you better prioritize your actions.

What is a community needs assessment?

The Child Welfare Information Gateway defines a community needs assessment as the following: 

“A community needs assessment identifies the strengths and resources available in the community to meet the needs of [community members]. The assessment focuses on the capabilities of the community, including its citizens, agencies, and organizations. It provides a framework for developing and identifying services and solutions and building communities that support and nurture children and families.”

Put simply, the outcomes of a community needs assessment guide how your organization and volunteers help the community. The outcomes of a community needs assessment usually fall into one of three main categories:

  1. Policy Change. This involves laws and regulations designed to guide or influence behavior. These can be both legislative or organizational. Policy changes can include raising the age limit to buy cigarettes.
  2. Systems Change. This involves a change that affects all aspects of the community. This includes the social norms of an organization, institution, or system, and often goes hand in hand with policy change. These changes can include prohibiting smoking in public places.
  3. Environmental Change. This involves physical, social, or economic factors that influence people’s practices and behaviors. Physical includes structural changes, like building specific smoking-only structures. Social factors include changes in attitude and behavior, like a need for more no-smoking areas. Lastly, economic factors include financial disincentives or incentives to encourage a desired behavior like raising the price of cigarettes.

Why is conducting a community needs assessment important?

A community needs assessment is a key tool that can aid any volunteer program you create. By conducting an assessment before you develop a program, you ensure a firm grasp on a community’s gaps. After all, your program works to fill those gaps through resources and services.

The assessment plays a critical role in guiding decision-making and priority-setting for your program while involving community members in the process. By following this method, you’ll build your program around the most vital services for your community members.

Who should be involved in the community needs assessment?

When you begin conducting the assessment, you need to figure out exactly who to reach out to in your community to help facilitate the assessment. Here’s who will likely be involved:

  • Community members who feel the direct effects of a gap in services or resources. Make sure you hear a myriad of voices and concerns in your community to better serve them. 
  • Expert community leaders, like members of a school board, local government officials, human service providers, and other professionals in the field. 
  • A team of stakeholders, including community members, to oversee and carry out the assessment and guide your program planning.

The Basic Steps of a Community Needs Assessment

Conducting a community needs assessment requires ample preparation and a dedicated focus for the results and the subsequent program created to have any genuine effects.

Follow along below for how to best prepare and carry out your community needs assessment.

1. Define your community.

Defining your community can give you a sense of why gaps may exist. It also helps identify the group(s), or sub-communities, that tend to feel the effects the most. You can define the community with:

Define your community for your community needs assessment with population, location, and attitudes & values.
  • Population. While the lives of those in your community are unique, needs are often felt by groups of individuals. Your goal is to understand the culture and social structure of your community to better target your program. If you’re addressing homelessness rates among veterans, you’ll want to analyze those who are the most at-risk for homelessness. Doing so will help you delve deeper into the systemic issues that contribute to a need felt by the community. Further analyze your population through demographics such as age, gender, race, income level, ethnicity, and more.
  • Place. Communities and sub-communities tend to center around place: where people live, play, work, and gather. Places can include schools, senior centers, shelters, parks, religious establishments, and other infrastructure. Consider the physical places and attributes that matter to members. How will your program address and respect those important places? What infrastructure exists? Is there an attribute of the place that should be addressed or improved?
  • Attitudes and Values. This is about what drives your community. What do the people you serve care about? What beliefs are important to consider and respect? What are the local attitudes toward certain issues? What biases may some hold?

Defining the places and values that are important to the populations of your community is an imperative first step in the assessment process. This way, you form a comprehensive foundation on the needs that exist, helping you increase awareness of the driving forces behind your community and approach community members with sensitivity and respect for their needs.

2. Decide on scope.

Community needs are often interconnected and complicated. For instance, homelessness has many underlying causes and effects.

The types of community needs you choose to address will ultimately depend on your organization’s expertise and core mission. Does your organization address gaps in community health? In education? You may want to address homelessness and its many causes, or you may focus your resources on a smaller group that is disproportionately affected by a gap in services. 

It can be tempting to want to assess and address all the needs in your community. But by identifying community needs based on your available expertise and resources and narrowing your scope accordingly, you can better concentrate your efforts on what will achieve the most impact. That’s why it’s important to define the intended reach or scope of your program from the outset. 

Your scope should largely depend on the resources available in your community, with more available resources allowing for a wider scope. While it’s helpful to set lofty goals, it’s also important to know your scope and set achievable goals—and seek growth as your program becomes more established.

3. Identify assets.

It’s important to figure out the types of assets you’ll need in your community needs assessment to create your program. These assets, also referred to as resources, are necessary for your program’s success. Assets can include:

  • Organizations
  • People (volunteers, community members, and experts)
  • Funding
  • Policies

It’s helpful to start by identifying the assets that are readily available to you. This can include community organizations and individuals who already provide services or financial support to assess needs and address them.

Nonprofit and other service-learning organizations also often look to other communities with similar demographics that have successfully addressed similar needs. Look at the resources that drove their progress and consider taking a similar approach.

4. Make connections.

To pull off your community needs assessment, you need to know the right people. As you learned above, some of your greatest assets are just people, from students to governors.

To get started, you should gather your contacts and reach out to community leaders.

Let’s say your organization is looking to develop programming for veterans. Reach out to leaders by visiting the gathering places of your community’s veterans, contacting the congressional affairs office, and getting in touch with a VA health center.

These connections can help you assess needs and play a key part in helping you address them. It’s important to have resources, support, and ample expertise available to you before implementing a program.

5. Collect data.

To conduct a community needs assessment, you need data.

Your data will include statistics, but the numbers aren’t enough, especially when you’re dealing with real people who have real needs that go beyond what is quantitative. You should also collect qualitative data, like the thoughts and knowledge of community members.

Considering qualitative data in conjunction with quantitative data will give you a broader sense of the types of gaps in the community. You’ll be able to better identify whether needs are perceived or relative, for example, and therefore shape your program more effectively.  

Read on to the next section to dive deeper into how you exactly collect and use this data for your community needs assessment.

Collecting Data for your Community Needs Assessment

The data you collect plays a direct role in the results of your community needs assessment and can help define the actual program you create. However, how you find this data and use it can be confusing. Read on to learn about data collection methods, as well as how you can analyze and present that data.

Data collection methods 

As you now know, the main takeaway from your assessment should be a clear understanding of the impact, intensity, and distribution of services needed for your program. Collecting qualitative and quantitative data will help inform that decision-making.

Here are the types of information you’ll want to collect:

  • Interviews, focus groups, and surveys: Speak to those at ground level, experts, and community leaders about what they observe and experience in the way of needs.
  • Listening sessions and public forums: Listening and participating in community gatherings like town meetings are top ways to learn about perspectives on local issues.
  • Direct or participatory observation: 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.

Existing quantitative data

Gathering quantitative data can be especially time-consuming and costly. Luckily, there is plenty of community-based data 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 popular places to start:

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.

Analyze your findings

Once you have a great resource of data, including notes from your interviews, surveys, and observations, it’s time to analyze it.

Take that data and try to look for patterns and trends. For the best analysis that can help you plan your program, separate your key findings into the following groups:

  • Strengths. What are the existing strengths of your community? For instance, let’s say you find that robust community partnerships are successful with low-income youth as graduation rates increased 22% over the past five years. This can give you a starting point for your program.
  • Gaps. Where do you see lags in your findings? Identifying gaps can help guide the creation of your new program. For instance, you may see that youth programs tend to halt after graduation, and there is a lack of follow-up support for low-income women above school age. Perhaps your program focuses on post-graduation mentorship for women.
  • Challenges. Are there any common challenges that affect your community’s needs? For instance, you might notice that time constraints for working individuals lead to disinterest in public programming. How can your new program combat these challenges? 
  • Opportunities. Are there any known opportunities that you can take advantage of? For instance, you may find that programs directed toward low-income women in similar communities experienced an increase in funding last year. Maybe your program should focus on low-income women since you know that has found success before.

Present your findings

After conducting a needs assessment, organizations typically produce a community needs assessment report. This report is used to demonstrate findings and make the case for program funding. The report generally includes the following sections:

These are the components of your community needs assessment report.
  1. Key Players: Overview of needs assessment participants and program partners involved.
  2. Methodology: Description of the methods used to collect data
  3. Participation: Describe the demographic and number of individuals represented in the data collected, i.e., How many individuals responded to your survey? How many focus group sessions were held? 
  4. Strengths and Limitations of Assessment: What are the strengths of the needs assessment and its results? How are the assessment and results limited? What challenges were faced during the process of conducting a needs assessment? 
  5. Key Findings: This section should make up the bulk of your report. Discuss the gaps, strengths, and challenges discovered in the community needs assessment results. Present data and case studies. What opportunities did you uncover?
  6. Recommendations and Next Steps: Based on your results and 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 with stakeholders?
FREE DOWNLOAD: Community Needs Assessment Questionnaire and Report Outline

Community Needs Assessment: Developing a Program

Once you conduct your community needs assessment and produce a comprehensive and insightful report, it’s time to use those findings and create a dedicated volunteer program for it. Here are your next steps to consider:

Draft your mission statement.

The first thing you need is a clear and specific mission statement. A mission statement defines the purpose of your program and what exactly it intends to accomplish.

The mission statement should be written collaboratively with your team and presented to your board, funders, program recipients, and volunteers. Writing a clear mission statement will help you define the needs you hope to address and establish a focus on the work you need to move forward.

Check out this article for more information on mastering the mission statement and how it can be used.

Create an action plan.

Creating an action plan involves the exact steps and activities you want to take. This is deeply rooted in the findings of your community needs assessment.

Choose the key findings you want your program to focus on. For each key finding, list your intended activity or response. These activities should all work towards addressing the need.

Activities can include securing funding or convening a regular meeting with partners. Denote a person (or team) responsible for carrying out the activities and establish clear deadlines. 

Finally, determine indicators of success. Indicators of success should tell you that you have completed the activity or accomplished a goal. Use a table like this to help organize your plan:

Here is an example of how you can organize your community needs assessment findings to help you create an action plan for your program.

Communicate your program.

You’ve listened to what’s important to your community. You’ve developed a plan. Now it’s time to implement your program!

Gather volunteers, reach out to donors, issue a press release, and discuss your new program at the next town meeting or on your social media channels. Bolster engagement with your cause, and you’ll hit the ground running.

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.

Knowing how to conduct a community needs assessment will help your organization highlight the strengths of your community and allow you to more effectively enact positive change.

Resources for Community Organizations

To help you gather research for your community needs assessment, we’ve compiled a couple of resources to get you started:

  • Galaxy Digital’s Community needs assessment questionnaire and report outline. As part of your data collection process, you may conduct community-based surveys. We’ve prepared a sample questionnaire to help get you started! Along with that, we’ve also created a report outline that can help inform decision-making and be shared with your board and other stakeholders to substantiate your program. 
FREE DOWNLOAD: Community Needs Assessment Questionnaire and Report Outline
  • Community Needs assessment workbook by CDC. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created this community health needs assessment example to help organizations assess needs. Even if you’re not a community health organization, you may find the framework used in this needs assessment PDF helpful. 
  • Assessing Community Needs and Resources. This is a Community Tool Box created by the University of Kansas. This holds additional resources that can help with community assessments for health promotion programs.
  • Early Childhood Needs and Resources Community Assessment Tool. Created by the National League of Cities, these tools are designed to help city officials and other community leaders assess their community. Gain a better understanding of how young children and their families are faring and where exactly assistance is needed.
  • Planning and Program Development: Community Needs Assessment. The Office for Victims of Crime and HALOS has created a strategy for assessing community needs. This resource provides an overview of community needs assessments, the challenges to consider, and some of the lessons learned from HALOS’ extensive needs assessment process.

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