Conducting a Community Needs Assessment
What are the steps in conducting a needs assessment study?
- Establish a working committee to solicit individual and community involvement and develop a plan of action.
- List important issues to be addressed.
- Identify the population to be surveyed.
- Determine the information that is needed -- it may be existing information which must be collected, or it may be information gathered using a survey.
- Select a random sample of persons to survey.
- Develop and pretest a questionnaire.
- Collect information.
- Analyze the data.
- Report the results.
Who Will Conduct the Study?
The first step in performing a needs assessment is to decide who will conduct the study. A needs assessment study can be carried out by outside consultants, volunteers, or staff. Your available resources, time frame, and comfort level with performing research may influence your decision. There are advantages and disadvantages that must be evaluated and these are reviewed in this section.
Outside consultants have expertise in how to conduct research studies. They provide objectivity in the needs assessment process by offering an outsider's view. Since consultants are experienced at performing research, this option makes better use of your limited time. The primary disadvantage to using outside consultants is the cost. Consultants are your most expensive option.
Volunteers from the community are another possibility. Volunteers provide several advantages: they don't cost anything (or very little if you offer them a small stipend for their time) and they save staff time. One of the disadvantages in using volunteers to help with needs assessments is that they may present a biased interpretation of what the community needs; thus, it is important to select volunteers who reflect a broad array of the community. In addition, it may be difficult to find volunteers who are willing to devote their time to this process and who have experience in performing research.
Staff can also perform needs assessments. While staff are less expensive than hiring outside consultants, many staff are inexperienced in research methods and do not have the time to perform a needs assessment on top of their regular responsibilities. If the needs assessment becomes an in-house activity, it is important to offer adequate compensation in terms of reducing the staff member's other work responsibilities.
You need to weigh the pros and cons for each method and decide what will be the most effective approach. Often, budget is the major factor restricting the choices. It may be a good idea to use a combination of these methods. For example, you might hire an outside consultant to help you set up the needs assessment study, but then use volunteers to actually implement the study. Dividing the responsibilities in creative ways might help in performing a cost-effective needs assessment.
What Kind of Information Will Be Collected?
The second step in performing a needs assessment is to decide what you hope to learn about your community and what kind of information you plan to collect. For example, do you hope to perform a broad-based study or one that is focused on a particular area? Some of the categories of information you might be interested in collecting include:
- Historical Development: To help you understand how the community became what it is today and to provide insight into the kinds of resources to collect and weed;
- Geographical and Transportation Information: To help you understand your community's growth patterns and population distribution;
- Political and Legal Factions: To help you decide strategies for community-based selection;
- Demographic Data (e.g., age characteristics, size, race, and transience of the population): To help you recognize the demographics of your community and identify population distribution changes;
- Economic Data: To help you identify your community's economic base;
- Social, Cultural, Educational and Recreational Organizations: To help you determine your community's values and social patterns.
How Will the Information Be Collected?
Now that you have decided on the types of information you want to collect about your community, you need to determine how to collect that information. You can collect data by interviewing key informants in the community, holding a community forum, researching social indicators/demographic information from public records and reports, and performing field surveys. It is best if you can use more than one of these data collection methods in combination. However, most centers don't have the necessary budgetary and staff resources to use more than one method. These data collection methods are discussed further below.
Key informants of the community are people who hold socially responsible positions (such as educators, public officials, clergy and business representatives), or are active in community events. Key informants, by virtue of their positions in the community, have wide contact with people in the community; typically community members turn to key informants for help in answering their questions. By interviewing key informants, you can get a better understanding of their impressions of the needs of the community. However, this method provides subjective data since it is based on opinions that may not reflect the needs of the entire community.
Another data collection option is to hold a community forum. A community forum involves holding a group event that may include the entire community. It is a good idea to include as many as possible of the people who use (or potentially could use) your center to help decide what services should be available. Community forums can give visibility to your center and raise its status within the community. However, these forums require lots of planning and publicity. The majority of the attendees will probably be active community members, rather than those who do are not active at all. This can make it difficult to determine how to encourage non-active members of the community to use the center, which is one of the reasons you are probably doing the needs assessment in the first place. Another disadvantage of this method is that it tends to provide subjective and impressionistic data about the community's needs.
A more objective method of data collection is to use public records (such as the national Census) to find out the social indicators or demographics of your community related to age, gender, education level, income level, etc.
Surveys and questionnaires involve asking individuals in the community about their needs. Surveys can be implemented in several ways:
- Mailing questionnaires to randomly selected members of the community (or in small communities, to all households)
- Performing telephone surveys
- Handing out surveys while people are at a community event
- Posting questionnaires on your website.
Response rates vary depending on the method used. For example, mailed surveys tend to have the lowest response rates while surveys performed over the telephone tend to have higher participation rates. While mailed surveys are the most expensive option and get low response rates, the mailed survey method requires very little time to implement and is easy to coordinate. It is standard practice to provide confidentiality to your survey participants; reassuring your participants that their survey responses will be kept confidential might help improve your response rates, especially in a small community.
Information gathered from surveys is only as good as the questions that are asked; thus, the phrasing of survey questions is a very important consideration and can have a tremendous impact on the results you get. In addition to the way the question is phrased, survey questions can be formatted in several ways: as open ended questions that require the participant to write in a response, as fixed alternative questions that ask participants to select one of the presented options, or as closed questions that require participants to answer yes or no. Each of these formats has advantages and disadvantages; how you phrase and format these questions must be carefully considered. It is always a good idea to pretest your questions to help identify flaws in the question format. You might also want to solicit help from an experienced survey researcher at this stage, if you are performing the needs assessment yourself.
How Will the Information Be Used?
In order to make use of the information you have collected, the results have to be interpreted. To interpret the data, some statistical analyses are often applied to identify what the majority of the community feels are the most important needs. When the data analysis is complete, it should be possible to produce a rank-ordered list of the most important changes identified by the community; this ranking can be used to set budget priorities. At the end of this process, it is a good idea to share your findings with the community in some way: holding a group meeting, creating displays at the library, or writing articles to appear online.