Home Capacity Building Needs Asssesment
Needs Assessment PDF Print E-mail

This is one in a series of "think pieces" on which we invite comment and discussion. Each of these short pieces raises an issue that any nonprofit might want to consider when the Board begins to develop policies that should undergird the institution's move toward "self-sufficiency." This piece was written by E. Maynard Moore, Ph.D., one of the partners of CommunityNexus Consulting LLC.

Conducting a Needs Assessment in Your Community

In order to conduct a successful capital or endowment campaign, it is imperative that your Planning Team establish goals and objectives that make sense to the people in your community and your constituency who will be asked to support your campaign. You will need to build a Case for Support that contains documented references to a Community Needs Assessment. Now, you might say: “What is a need?" What does it mean to assess needs?

"The referent is a complex of processes, sometimes not formalized, by which people decide, on behalf of an organization or a community, what goals to pursue, what their priorities are, and which ones have first claim on the pool of available resources. When those processes are systematic, when they are well defined and delimited, and when they use data and opinions from sources other than the decision-makers alone, that complex of processes is usually termed a needs assesment."  

From Witkin, Belle Ruth. 1984. Assessing Needs in Educational and  Social Programs: Using Information to Make Decisions, Set Priorities  and Allocate Resources . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, Social and Behavioral Science Series. page 5. 

In common usage, a need is whatever is required for the health or well-being of a person, such as oxygen, food or love. In personality theory, a need is anything a person wants with sufficient consistency over time for this "need" to be treated as a feature of his personality. Need is also generally understood to indicate a state or condition (such as Maslow's hierarchy of needs) -- from the physical (at the lowest level of survival) to self-actualization (the highest level). However, in the case of a social needs assessment, the word need is properly used only as a noun to denote a "discrepancy" or gap between some desired or acceptable condition of affairs, and the perceived condition that serves as a desired outcome (or objective) in terms of results. It is the starting point as we define the difference between "what is" and "what should be."

Crafting a Vision for the Future

In the context of your nonprofit organization, your objectives undoubtedly will be defined in terms of "internal" needs and "external" needs, that is, those things that you need to do internally (building repairs, new construction, hiring new staff, establishing a new program) and those things you need to do externally (address social problems, an aging population, unserved youth, new families moving into your area, etc.)

The point is, your Vision for the Future (which should drive your campaign) more than likely will encompass both internal and external needs. To say that the community center needs a new roof is one thing (and if the current roof is leaking, this need may be obvious). The question is: WHY is this organization here (in this particular community) in the first place? And, HOW can the organization more effectively fulfill its purpose in the future? It’s purpose must transcend the need for a new roof.

The answer to the first question is your Mission Statement. The answer to the second involves your Vision for the Future. Both should be grounded in a Community Needs Assessment. Many organizations have also initiated or are completing a Strategic Plan, and in such a case, the Board of Directors may also mandate a Needs Assessment to help it identify priorities on the basis of which it can establish its long-term goals and objectives.

It is very important to address internal needs. You can go about this informally or with technical help. If you decide it is important to mount a space utilization study, you'll probably want to engage a special consultant to tap this expertise. But defining the internal needs might not be so complicated. What is much more difficult is mounting an external Community Needs Assessment, and therefore in the paragraphs that follow, that is where we will focus some attention. You might have one small group working on internal needs while a second group focuses on the external. The entire process can be completed within a 60-90 day window, if the effort is organized properly.

An important early step in the planning process for any major capital or endowment campaign is the task of identifying the priority needs of the community in which the agency fulfills its Mission. Even while the campaign leadership is being recruited, the staff executive team might begin the formulation of a Vision for the Future that might later be expressed in the campaign Case for Support. Any strategic, long-range, or master plan currently in place or under development should be incorporated into this important discussion. This is also an appropriate opportunity to revisit earlier plans that may have been abandoned due to lack of funds or interest.

Most organizations in the nonprofit sector now have a well-defined and updated Mission statement. But when you begin to think about organizing a major fundraising campaign, you should first initiate a process to define a Vision for the Future, a Vision that will address the challenges the organization finds before it, and which will help it to fulfill its Mission. Securing broad input can be important. Chairpersons of committees responsible for various aspects of the organization's programs and services should be consulted for suggestions. Good questions to stimulate discussion might be: "What would your program look like, if you had unlimited resources?" or "What would you like to accomplish that you can't accomplish now without additional help?" Remember that the objective is not simply to produce a list of needs, but to relate those needs to an integrated Vision for the Future. The focus must always be on programs and the effects of the organization's services in the community, not merely on things that the agency would like to have.

As the Vision for the Future is crafted, it will be necessary to identify and quantify the means necessary to achieve the desired end. This may involve expansion or renovation of existing facilities, purchase of new facilities, upgrading of equipment, hiring of additional staff, or development of new programs. The means for accomplishing the Vision become objectives in the Campaign Case, and each objective should be described in terms of both its intended benefits and its required resources: e.g., "renovation of rest rooms to permit handicap access - $10,000" or "new education wing providing six additional classrooms and two additional offices - $300,000." If capital expansion or expenditures are anticipated, it will be necessary to consult architects, contractors, and other potential vendors to determine accurate cost estimates. These data will be important for the work of the campaign leadership when the Case for Support is crafted.

Analysis of the Needs Assessment Data

Once the data is gathered by the research teams, each of the teams should distill their findings in a concise report, and each report should be structured in a compatible format so that your Board can make sense of the findings and use the findings to make decisions and assess recommendations. Once again, the questions that follow are only suggestions. Your Planning Team should adapt these in ways that makes sense in your situation. In each of your four (or six) goal areas, you might ask:

  • What is the current situation (numbers and past trends)?
  • What are best expectations (five years, ten years)?
  • What are the unresolved / lingering issues & problems?
  • What impacts on our organization can be expected?

What you end up with is a pretty accurate (not necessarily a scientific) picture of what's happening in your community, the community in which your agency is trying to implement its Vision for the Future. Then (and only then) you are ready to ask: "Given these external factors / forces / trends / pressures ... and Given these expected impacts on our organization ... WHAT IS OUR ABIDING MISSION IN THIS SITUATION?"

For example: it might well be that your Planning Team agrees that the number one problem in your community is homelessness, but if the Salvation Army is already building a shelter for the homeless two blocks away, should we 1. build a shelter for the homeless? 2. offer to join forces with the Salvation Army to implement an even stronger program? 3. devote our time and energy to some other problem / issue? 4. focus on our own internal organizational needs?

For example: it might turn out that a major issue is the lack of after-school programs for the young people in the community (including those near your agency). And you discover that the School District within two years is slated to build a brand new high school within five blocks of your center. You don't have the resources within your organization to mount any effective program on your own. But suppose you initiate a collaboration with another nearby agency?

If your organization has not engaged its key volunteers in a process of Strategic Planning, we encourage you to do so, and perhaps the first step for your Planning Team to undertake would be that of conducting a Needs Assessment in the immediate environs served by your agency. You will find that there are many needs in a community, too many for any one organization to try to tackle. But before you can begin to develop a campaign implementation plan, you must get a handle on what those needs might be.

Now many people will say, "Forget it. We already know what the needs are. We don't have the resources to do anything about them." Well, sorry. You will never develop new resources if you can not demonstrate that you have done your homework, and focus your goals on the priority needs of the community. Of course, everyone hates to do homework!!! But as much as we hate it, when the crunch comes, if we have not adequately prepared, failure is more likely than success.

We once conducted a campaign for an institution that spent three years in the assessment and planning process, but when the time came to launch the campaign, it was completed in six weeks -- and it went 20% over goal. This lesson should not be lost for those who are eager to take short cuts.

The point is: on the basis of the data you have and the Needs Assessment you have completed, all of a sudden you discover you have the basis for making intelligent decisions. You have defined the Need. The key question is: WHAT IS THE OPPORTUNITY FOR SERVICE BEFORE US? And if this is the right opportunity, IS IT CONSISTENT WITH OUR VISION FOR THE FUTURE? WHAT IS OUR STRATEGY FOR IMPLEMENTING OUR VISION? WHAT ARE THE RESOURCES WE NEED TO ACCOMPLISH OUR MISSION? These paragraphs are shared with you as a guideline. They are not a prescription. This advice MUST be adapted for your own situation. But if you don't ask one of these questions, you must decide: "What is the right question for us?" You must decide as to the kind of data you want, the extent of the data you need, and the method by which you will get the data you seek.

The first task is to define the SCOPE of your study: what are the geographic limits of the region within which your organization finds itself? It might be a county. It might be a new housing community. It might be the city boundaries. It might be an expressway exit. It might be the entire country. It doesn't matter, except that you must define the SCOPE of your project or you will never finish. Until you complete the Needs Assessment, forget about whether you have current resources for a particular project. That is a secondary and subsequent question. First you have to define the "needs" and then you move on to subsequent issues. CommunityNexus Consulting welcomes the opportunity to plan and implement a Community Needs Assessment with your leadership team. Feel free to call on us when you are ready to discuss some options.