Before your organization implements a new internal program, you may want to conduct a needs assessment. A needs assessment is a way of analyzing gaps in community services, as well as the strengths and assets available in your community. Keep reading to learn about how to assess needs and build your program around this assessment.
Assessing Local Needs
What are local needs?
Local needs are gaps between what services exist in a community and what should exist. It may be helpful to categorize needs into four categories: perceived needs, expressed needs, absolute needs, and relative needs.
- Perceived needs: based on what individuals feel their needs are. The standard may change based on each individual’s point of view. It’s important not to dismiss perceived needs as merely opinion. Taking into account the feelings and concerns of community members should be an essential component of your assessment.
- Expressed needs: defined by the number of individuals who sought help. Individuals may have felt a need and acted upon it. Be mindful of the false assumption that all people with needs seek help.
- Absolute needs: needs deemed universal, including those for survival (i.e. food, water, safety, and clothing).
- Relative needs: needs rendered necessary based on equity. The standard may vary based on population differences.
When you conduct your assessment you will work to identify gaps and make conclusions about the needs that will ultimately help to fill them. Categorizing needs will help you to prioritize your actions.
Why should your organization assess local needs?
Before you develop your program, it’s important to have a firm grasp on the gaps that exist within a community. Programs that address community needs work to fill gaps in resources and services. The assessment will guide 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 services that are most vital for your community members.
Who should be involved in your assessment?
First and foremost, those who feel the effects of a gap in services or resources should play a part in your decision making. You’ll have the opportunity to hear a myriad of voices and concerns in your community to better serve them. It’s important to use the expertise of community leaders, like members of a school board, local government officials, human service providers, and experts in the field. Consider gathering a team of stakeholders, including community members, to oversee and carry out the assessment and guide your program planning.
Define your community
Defining your community can give you a sense of why gaps may exist. It will also help you identify the group(s), or sub-communities, that tend to feel the effects most.
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 your program’s aim is to address homelessness rates among veterans, you may want to analyze those who are the most at-risk for homelessness. This will help you delve deeper into the systemic issues that contribute to a need felt by the community. Demographics can be broken down into 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 the places that are important? What infrastructure exists? Is there an attribute of the place that should be addressed or improved?
Attitudes and Values: This is really 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 that make up your community is an imperative first step in the assessment process. You’ll form a context around the needs that exist; you’ll increase awareness of the driving forces behind your community; and you’ll be able to approach community members with sensitivity and respect for their needs.
Decide on scope
Community needs are often interconnected and complicated (i.e. homelessness has many underlying causes and effects). It’s important to define the intended reach of your program. You may want to address homelessness and its many causes, or you may focus your resources on a smaller group who are disproportionately affected by a gap in services. Your scope should largely depend on the resources available in your community (more available resources tend to allow for a wider scope). While it is helpful to set big goals, it’s also important to set achievable goals and seek growth as your program becomes more established.
Identify the assets, also referred to as resources, that are necessary for your program’s success. Assets can include organizations, people (volunteers, community members, and experts), funding, and policies. Start by identifying those resources that are readily available to you; this may include community organizations and individuals who already provide services or financial support to address needs. Nonprofits that are developing new programs will 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.
Some of your greatest assets are people, from students to governors. Gather your contacts and reach out to community leaders. Let’s say your organization is looking to develop programming for veterans. Visit the gathering places of your community’s veterans, contact the congressional affairs office, and get in touch with a VA health center. It’s important to have resources, support, and expertise available to you before implementing a program.
Your data will include statistics, but also 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.
Methods of gathering data
The main takeaway from your assessment should be a clear understanding of the impact, intensity, and distribution of services. Collect qualitative and quantitative data that will inform your 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 a great way 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.
Using existing quantitative data
Gathering quantitative data can be especially time-consuming. 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 great 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
Gather notes from your interviews, surveys, and observations and look for patterns and trends. Separate your key findings into the following groups to help plan your program:
Example: Robust community partnerships serving low-income youth. Graduation rate increased 22% over 5 years.
Example: Youth programs tend to halt after graduation; there is a lack of follow-up support for low-income women above school age.
Example: Time constraints for working individuals leads to disinterest in public programming.
Example: Programs directed toward low-income women in similar communities experienced an increase in funding last year.
Developing a program around the assessment
Now that you have assessed the needs of your community, your organization should feel confident about the direction you want your program to take. Here are a few major steps to consider when developing your program:
Draft a mission statement
A mission statement defines the purpose of your program; it’s what your program 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 to define the needs you hope to address and focus the work you do moving forward. Check out this article for more information on mastering the mission statement.
Create an action plan
This step should be deeply rooted in the findings of your assessment. Choose the key findings you want your program to focus on. For each key finding you choose, list your intended activity or response, all working toward 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:
|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 program (strive for 7-10 participants).||2 x forums, March, April||Program coordinators|
|Develop and send surveys.||Send March 1. Retrieve responses by May 1.||Amy S., Dan T.|
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 talk about 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.
It’s important to understand what matters to the members of your community and the improvements they want to see. Conducting a needs assessment will highlight the strengths of your community and allow you to more effectively incite positive change. Questions? Comments? We’d love to hear from you! Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.