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How to Develop a Community Needs Assessment for Your Nonprofit

Overworked and under-resourced, it is easy for nonprofits to put a community needs assessment on the backburner of its work plan. In reality, it is one of the most essential pieces for their toolbox and should be the basis of strategic planning. 

A community needs assessment is like a feasibility study. If a business does not know if the target market will purchase a product, it won’t produce it. This is why, according to Harvard Business Review, entrepreneurs who take the time to plan and conduct feasibility studies are 16% more likely to be successful. 

Even successful entrepreneurs who do not write formal plans ask simple questions about their product’s or service’s feasibility before they endeavored on their journeys. Nonprofits should also be asking those questions. 

Is another charitable service like yours needed? If so, will your community be able and willing to support it – with volunteer labor and funding? 

The research process, which can be as low-key as brainstorming among your staff and partners, can be beneficial in and of itself. It can help identify what types of resource gaps you have toward meeting your goals. 

For example, you may find while developing your community needs assessment  that you want to branch out to more volunteers or recruit volunteers from a different demographic. New tech trends like Golden, the world’s most awarded volunteer management software, can help ease those processes and support recruitment within new target audiences.  

How to Develop a Community Needs Assessment for Your Nonprofit

What is a Community Needs Assessment?

A community needs assessment is an objective and systematic review of what exists in a community. The purpose is to identify gaps in programs and resources to help the community fulfill its desired potential.

It is accompanied by a suggested action plan for filling those gaps, given the history, context, and capacity of the community. It usually accomplishes the following objectives. 

    • Define community needs. What do we really need? Well, it depends on what the community thinks it needs! Every community has different sets of needs, depending on its demographics, wealth, and capacity. Some common ways to categorize needs include:

      • Absolute needs. People need water, food, and shelter. Most people agree upon a universal need for education, freedom of expression, and basic health. 

      • Perceived needs. These come right from the source – people in the community. If you ask a wide cross-section of community members what they think the local area needs, they will likely have answers ready. 

      • Expressed needs. This is more concrete. Once people go beyond saying what they perceive they need and actually act to fill the gap, these are expressed needs. Many may say that education is terrible in your area but they send their children to school anyway. Once a good percentage of community members actively are paying for private schools or driving their children long distances to bypass the system, you have a real need. 

      • Relative needs. We often base our standards on principles of equity. If a school district decides one middle school needs a swimming program, other schools will probably “need” a pool and a coach, as well.

    • Articulate the importance of a community needs assessment within your context. Before you start, it is good to identify a few potential benefits for conducting the assessment. Articulate them clearly in your published document, video, or whatever tool results from the process. Are you hoping to gain a better sense of real community gaps? Are you hoping to identify new sources for volunteers and funding? Are you hoping to rewrite your strategic plan?

    • Understand all potential benefits. You will benefit from the process in at least 3 ways:

      • Knowing your community. The process of developing the community needs assessment should result in, at a minimum, better knowing your stakeholder populations. Who lives in your community? What resources do you have? Who is working on the most pressing problems? What do they really think? How can they align with you? 

      • Prioritize your work. Understanding what resources are available and how you can potentially partner with others can help you prioritize your programs. It might help you rewrite your playbook as well, to include new program innovations based on what your community needs and wants. 

      • Rally stakeholders. Nonprofits have to prove their case. There is no better way to do so than through an objective community needs assessment clearly showing that your programs are wanted and will fill gaps in resources. It will help you raise funds and garner support from key stakeholders as a result.

    • When to prioritize a community needs assessment. Good times to make sure you are dedicating hours and space to your assessment include:

      • When it’s a needed part of a grant application. Most grants require some sort of needs assessment or case statement. If you have an objective, holistic report available with great data, you will compare better with the competition. 

      • When you are in the midst of a strategic review. Good organizations get their board and staff together every three years to go over past success and plan for the future. A relevant community needs assessment can help aid that process.

      • When the government asks you to. Government or local partners may ask you to be the objective expert leader to research a problem and report back. Take advantage!

    • Who to involve. Everyone you can! A 360-degree analysis of every level of stakeholder is a great way to understand your community. It also helps get your organization’s brand and mission in front of a large segment of the public. Here is a checklist of people and groups to consider in your process:
      • Your staff, volunteers, and board members 
      • Your donors 
      • Your beneficiaries 
      • Populations you have been unable to reach, underrepresented, or marginalized
      • Government officials 
      • Health and human services and other public stakeholders 
      • Schools and their relevant leadership 
      • Businesses 
      • Prominent individuals 
      • Academia 

Three Categories of Community Needs Assessment

Community needs assessment usually have a greater purpose: to advise some sort of change. 

Three Categories of Community Needs AssessmentsAccess to quality education is considered a need in most communities. 

  1. Policy change. The assessment may be measuring issues of public safety. If it shows that adolescents are at increased risk of gun violence, officials may be pressured to instill a driving curfew or limit work hours to early evening.

  2. System change. Sometimes standard practice is to blame for a problem, as revealed in an assessment. For example, youth obesity may be a result of poor lunch food options at school or zoning issues limiting fresh food sales. A change to the system in this case is needed to improve the situation.

  3. Environmental change to influence behaviors. In a city with a litter problem, a simple solution may be to include more trash bins in better traffic locations.  

Most Commonly Expressed Community Needs

Viewpoints and demographics play into what specific groups of people consider important. Parents will prioritize their children, for example, while seniors may prioritize health care and local recreation. Generally, though, people care about a few top priorities. 

  1. Basic needs. People need food, shelter, and access to water. If these basic needs are not met, the community will rally behind support options. Most Americans think homelessness is a serious problem that the government should be doing more to address.

  2. Safety. People want to feel safe in their community. Much of this is perceived – if there is evidence of gang activity, like graffiti, they might feel that their community is not safe enough.

  3. Economic stability. People want a good range of services and products in their area and access to meaningful jobs.

  4. Education.  This includes access to daycare, good public and private school options, and continuing education through universities, colleges, and adult learning centers.

  5. Clean environment. People have a high perceived and expressed need for clean air and open spaces.

  6. Image. People want to live somewhere that is aesthetically appealing and also clean and with a good reputation. The quality of the building and community planning affect opinions, as well.

  7. Community. People like to live in places that have open community events and opportunities to get together.

  8. Health and well-being. Communities should have ample and affordable resources for health care and for supporting well-being.

  9. Transportation. The more ways to get around, the better. People want their areas to have good roads, bike paths, walking paths, and public transportation.    

  10. Accessibility. Sometimes there are physical or logistical barriers. Other times there are cultural, perceived, or hidden barriers preventing stakeholders from equitable participation.                   

Step-by-Step Guide to Complete a Community Needs Assessment       

    1. Define your community by identifying who lives there and their demographics. What do they care about? Or what do you think they care about? It can be wise to develop a hypothesis before you dive into real data collection.

      Crucially, this hypothesis should come from a position of empathy rather than instruction. To understand the stakeholders, their pain points, and their opportunities for improved services, you need to identify real individuals and walk in their shoes, experiencing their interactions, perceptions, and objectives first-hand. In the field of User-Centered Design, this process is often referred to as defining “Personas” and following their “Journeys”.

    2. Identify resources. Part of the process is determining what is already available to support you in your work. Sometimes we focus so much on raising funding that we forget about potential assets in the community that can help us.

      Resources can be people, such as professionals and government workers. They can also be organizations – your partners and potential partners. Locations are resources. Do you have schools, technical institutes, parks, training centers, or churches? You might also develop a list of potential resources that can help people and movements, like public transportation and Wi-Fi centers.

      Do you have corporations that get involved? Make sure you research potential channels of corporate volunteerism as an asset. Tools like Golden can help you identify potential corporate volunteer partners in the community looking for either in person or online opportunities.  

    3. Collect data.  Use an array of tactics to get the information you need.

    • Community needs assessment and surveys. Set up your list of stakeholders, and then design a mix of qualitative and quantitative questions to gather input. Qualitative questions are open-ended, seeking opinions and longer answers. Quantitative are numbers-based, something we can measure directly (example: “How many children do you have?”).

      Examples of open-ended questions are:
      • “In what ways do you feel supported by your community?”
      • “How do you think we can improve lives for children?”
      • “Which services do you use most in our area?”

           You can conduct these types of surveys via in-person interviews, over the phone, or over email. Get some volunteers or a local               academic partner to help! 

    • Public forums are another great way to gather information. If you are on a budget, you can sit in on town meetings or virtual meetings and observe how community members react to the community.
    • Existing data. Your local city and the broader geographical area should have ample data published already regarding community needs. This information should form the backbone of your data assessment. Look to community economic development committees, health policies, and environmental reports. They should all have some level of community-informed data already compiled within. 

Compile a Community Needs Assessment Report and Action Plan

Now that you have your data, put it together in a meaningful community needs assessment report and action plan. This should entail:

  1. An executive summary, no more than a page or two, regarding your key findings and primary action steps for addressing problems or gaps in services.

  2. Methodology. You should mention your methodology for performing the study and who was involved.

  3. Overview of assets/findings. Provide an overview of what you discovered regarding strengths and weaknesses in the community.

  4. An outline of top key findings. Pick a few key points that you want to stress from the study and focus your narrative on them. Give a few pages of deeper detail for each key point.

  5. Define an action plan. An action plan is a work plan for suggestions for filling gaps in each of the top key finding areas. If one of the areas of need identified by your community was a lack of access to open spaces, you may define an action to “Research best spaces to design a new community park with running and biking trails.”

    That action should be coupled with a timeline, such as: “Report back to the town executive committee with best park spaces within 3 months.”

    Always attach a responsible party and an indicator of success. Maybe you can help as a nonprofit, so involve yourself in the analysis crew. “Our charity works with the local government recreation director to develop a report with weekly meetings and discussion groups.”

     The indicator of success in this case will be a product of a solid recommendation and the next steps to develop a park space.

6. Disseminate the analysis. Share it with your stakeholders! This can be both organized initiatives and targeted use in grant                    proposals and fundraising pitches. 

A Developed Community Needs Assessment – Where to Take it From Here

Now that your community needs assessment has been developed, it’s important that you use the information to improve your own capacity.  

Along with helping you write better grants, you can use the data in your volunteer recruitment. You now have a full data analysis of why volunteering is important for your community and in which ways. 

Take advantage of the best tech tools, like Golden, to streamline volunteer engagement and management. Golden can even help you connect with new pools of recruits, including corporate volunteers from your broader community.