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Community Needs Assessment Guide with Examples
We take a look at why community needs assessments are so important, how to conduct and analyze your findings, plus look over an example action plan.
The late nights, the stressful days, the tiny budgets and endless to-do lists are all worth it when you see the positive impact your organization makes on the community.
So what if you could leave an even bigger impact, just by doing a bit of research in advance?
A community needs assessment is a systematic review of the existing programs in the community to determine if there are any gaps.
The results of the assessment can identify where needs are not being met and may help you design a new program, or shift focus slightly so you and your volunteer team can better serve the community.
A community needs assessment is not a quick process, but it is well worth the time and effort.
So let’s take a look at why community needs assessments are so important, how to conduct an assessment and analyze your findings, plus look over an example action plan to help you get started.
What is a community needs assessment?
Community Needs Assessments seek to gather accurate information representative of the needs of a community. Assessments are performed prior to taking action and are used to determine current situations and identify issues for action. Needs assessments establish the essential foundation for vital planning,” according to learningtogive.org.
A finalized community needs assessment will:
- Identify the essential resources that are already available within the community.
- Identify the essential resources missing.
- Determine how best to use, develop, or obtain those resources.
What are the 3 main categories of community needs assessment?
A final outcome will usually determine that changes need to be either:
1. Policy, law or guideline changes to help change behavior.
This may mean campaigning to change laws that mean all drivers under the age of 23 must have a blood alcohol level of 0.0 at all times, in response to an increase in youth car accidents.
2. System changes that may affect social norms, institutions or standard practice
This may mean bringing in more alcohol-free drink options, increasing advertising targeting young drivers around the dangers of drink driving.
3. Environmental changes that include social, economic or physical changes designed to influence behaviors.
This may see taxi fares reduced for youths, or non profits organizing free courtesy buses home from local drinking establishments.
Why are community needs assessments important to volunteer organizations?
The usual mission of non profit volunteer organizations is to better serve the community, however communities are not a set construct. They are continually changing, from the average age of the population, the ethnic composition, unemployment rate, as well as general social, cultural, and economic changes which alter the character of a community.
So by performing a community needs assessment, non profit organizations can effectively determine the current community needs and work towards solving them.
While in the past, non profits may not have had the experience or resources to undertake strategic planning, many are now recognizing that a little bit of planning goes a long way.
So a community needs assessment has become a key tool, alongside volunteer management software and volunteer management plans, to help non profits maximize their impact. Strategic planning can also help them stay competitive, attract more volunteers and donors, and plan effectively for the future.
What are community needs?
Firstly, we want to explain what is ‘community needs’?
When we talk about a ‘community’ it’s easy to think of a geographical area. And while this may be the typical community that non profits operate in, there are other ways to define a community, and thus assess its specific needs:
- Demographics, such as age, gender, race, income level, disabilities
- Places such as community center users, religious associations, schools
- Views and beliefs such as environmentalists, vegans or dog owners.
We can categorize community needs into four major categories:
- Perceived needs: Things that members of the public think they need, and may vary greatly from person to person.
- Expressed needs: These are the things that have been voiced, whether it be to a public official, on a Facebook group or at a community meeting. While they may not be universal, they are real needs.
- Absolute needs: The basics such as clean running water, power, food, safety. If any of these are lacking, they should be an absolute priority.
- Relative needs: These are the things that contribute to a more equitable society. It might be providing laptops for families without one, breakfast at schools for children who don’t eat at home, or visiting dog walkers for elderly residents.
What are examples of community needs?
Community needs and their importance vary greatly between different groups. For example, young mothers probably won’t be worried about the development of a new senior citizens center, however they would find a new playground redevelopment important.
When we’re talking specifically about the needs of a residential community, they can fit into any of the four categories above. According to the National Community Survey (The NCS) in the US, below are the top 10 needs that matter most to residents. They are ranked in order of priority.
Nearly all residents rank safety as top priority in their community. Safety doesn’t necessarily tie in with high crime rates, as things such as graffiti, messy streets, dark alleyways and news articles can all influence perceived safety.
2. Economic health
Good jobs, shops, services and restaurants all rate highly as factors relating to economic independence. However, the more of these services that are available, the higher the cost of living, so this needs to be balanced.
No doubt one of the biggest community needs is access to quality education, for both children, adolescents, and older adults.
4. Natural environment
As people search out clean air, water, open space and nature, communities with easy access to these natural environments are highly rated. And as remote work becomes a growing trend, we’re seeing more and more people move away from cities in search of green space - which creates new needs.
5. Image/ reputation
People judge the quality of a community by how others view it. Therefore, residents want to see municipalities spend resources on marketing, events, streetscapes, historical attractions, and other community building programs.
The presence of things such as rubbish, weeds, graffiti, construction, bad roads and other eyesores negatively affect community ratings.
7. Sense of community
Creating opportunities for locals to gather, whether it be at formal events and clubs, parks or cafes, are all big needs in the community. It’s never too late to create these places where people can connect in person.
8. Health and wellness
Across all age groups, residents want to live in places where they can live healthy lives. This includes access to good quality, healthy food, medical services, fitness centers, walking trails and other wellness centers such as swimming pools, spas and allied health services.
While mobility – walking paths, cleverly designed streets, lack of congestion and public transport – is important, it is something most people are willing to compromise on in return for safety, economic prospects and good facilities.
10. Built environment
The built environment, housing, town planning and green spaces define the quality of the community. Residents like to feel the area they live in was designed to maximize their quality of life.
How to conduct a community needs assessment
Conducting a community needs assessment is all about getting out there and speaking to your clients, stakeholders, community partners and members.
There are many ways to consult your community, so you can choose the best processes that match your resources, time and financial situation. But first, you need to define your scope of research.
Define your scope
One of the hardest parts of a community needs assessment is narrowing your focus. If your assessment uncovers many issues in your community, you may be tempted to try to address all of them at once.
However, you will only end up spreading yourself too thin, and wearing out your team and volunteers. So it’s important to define your scope before you start a community needs assessment. This will help you focus your audience and research.
Really think about your organization's skills, mission, volunteer resources and connections already at your disposal. For example, if your organization addresses food relief in your local area, then taking on a new project rescuing animals will not be the best use of time and resources. However, if your assessment determines that residents also struggle with loneliness, you may be able to combine food relief with social visits and coffee chats by utilizing your existing network and program. After all, many community needs are interconnected, so there may be opportunities to address other gaps without losing focus of your mission.
Now, let’s take a look at some different research methods to find out exactly what your community needs.
Research and interviews
You can start gathering quantitative information by reading through existing government records, census data, newspaper stories, other agencies and researching on the internet. You may find some research has already been done in this area.
Also, speak to influential people in the area such as government officials, school records, community leaders and other non profit organizations and ask them about the important issues in the community and what they think is needed.
- Free to do
- Not too resource intensive
- Can be done over time
- Good background information to guide your next steps
- More problem than solution focused
- Not specific to your area
Questionnaires and surveys
Questionnaires and surveys are two data collection methods that provide a great way to collect information about your area if there isn’t any existing research available. If you have an existing database, you could email the survey to your clients and supporters, or if you are operating in a geographical area, you could deliver a letter with a link to the online survey, or hand it out at shops or markets.
It is likely that a majority of people will not respond, so hand out as many as you can to anyone who shows interest. Once you have numerous responses, you can start seeing trends in the data and you’ll get an idea about key issues.
Designing the survey is important, and it will differ depending on your goals. If you just want to gauge general community needs, your questions will differ from a survey to gauge information about your organization.
Here are a few sample questions you might like to use:
- Family status
- Income level
- What do you know about our organization?
- How would you like to see (region/organization/program) change in the next five years?
- Are there needs or gaps in our programs and services that are not being met at the moment?
- Are there any changes taking place in the community that concern you? What are they? What might be done about those changes?
- What programs do you know of that people are trying in other places that we should try in this community?
- What factors are most important to you in a community?
- Any additional comments?
- A cost-effective way to get a lot of information
- Can collect a diverse range of responses
- May not get many responses
- No opportunity to create dialogue
- May be biased results based on survey design
Focus groups really allow you to deep dive into the community’s needs and discuss them. The trick is to gather a wide selection of people - clients, diverse volunteers, community members, other stakeholders, so you can take them through your ideas and get valuable feedback before you make any major plans. Gaining their insight will allow you to adjust your program or operations based on feedback, as well as identifying any potential issues or gaps.
Make sure to have a facilitator who is able to ensure the session runs smoothly, and they can move the discussion along when needed. Also bring a list of questions, topics or plans to get direct feedback on.
Focus groups do take a bit of organization, and traditionally attendees are given some sort of financial compensation for their time. You may also want to record them to go back over any great insights.
- You can invite a wide variety of people
- You can ask open-ended questions
- Get feedback before implementing changes
- Hard to organize and get people to attend
- You’ll get a lot of opinions, not facts
- Resource intensive
Hosting a community or public forum is a great way to ensure they feel part of the process, and that they have been consulted and heard. Community forums can be extremely valuable and encourage positive steps towards finding solutions that meet a need. The experience, advice, and local knowledge that you gain can be extremely effective, and hard to gain in other avenues.
It’s important to gather as many people from various backgrounds as possible, including other non profit or volunteer charity organizations who may want to address similar topics.
Have a community leader or someone from your organization lead the discussion, with roving microphones to allow the crowd to be heard.
- Great community buy-in
- You can invite a wide variety of people
- You can think things through productively as a community
- A lot of work to organize
- Hard to get individual opinions
- Can go off-topic
A great way to get unbiased, direct from the source qualitative data is by observing people. You may want to visit places such as aged care facilities, hospitals, schools or community centers, observing and speaking with the visitors.
This sort of data collection will help you identify gaps or needs that even the community themselves may not even be aware of.
Make sure you ask lots of questions and participate in services and programs.
- Qualitative data
- Very useful findings
- Very individual
Analyze your findings
After you’ve collected a large amount of data, it’s time to bring together all your interviews, research, observations and survey responses and analyze it.
Start by sorting your data into groups so you can begin to identify trends and patterns in responses. You may want to use a SWOT template to help you sort out the responses. It also helps to conduct the session as a group with other team members or stakeholders.
After brainstorming, create a final prioritized list of points in our SWOT analysis template. List the factors in each category from highest to lowest priority.
Identify any areas that appear as strengths of your community. This might be other non profit organizations who are operating in the area, services, community projects such as parks or events, school results or health outcomes. Make note of any strengths that continually pop up in the data or any that are particularly related to your cause.
Identify any gaps in the community services that are currently available. Perhaps residents are continually mentioning that there are not enough places to walk safely, or children have nowhere to play outside. Or maybe the data findings outline the lack of jobs for teenagers, or lack of maternity services for mothers. These weaknesses will help you identify gaps and guide your next steps.
Identify opportunities that already exist within your community that you can take advantage of as you make plans. Opportunities might include partnering with other organizations, taking learnings from similar non profits operating in other geographical areas, extending existing services, or funding schemes you can apply for.
Note down any threats or challenges that appear in the data. These are the things that could derail your plans or make it challenging to operate. This could include changes to funding, distrust in the community, lack of available volunteers, a changing population, or other external factors threatening the safety of the community.
Make a plan
The final step in the community needs assessment is to make a plan of attack.
Based on the survey results and the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats identified, you should be able to identify the major community gaps and needs.
The community needs assessment should conclude with recommendations as to what gaps your non profit organization will address. Consider how you will address them, why is your organization the best to do that, and how will you communicate with stakeholders?
It’s also important to consider how you can use your existing volunteer network to run the program, or how you will recruit more volunteers.
Don’t forget to communicate your new program with as many people as possible to ensure it has a successful launch. Recruit volunteers, ask existing volunteers to share with their networks, issue a press release, emails, social media announcements and at community events. The more engagement you can generate, the more reach and impact you’ll make.
Community needs assessment example
Creating an action plan is the document that will guide your internal actions, so everyone knows exactly what needs to be done, by when, who is responsible, and what are the indicators of success.
We’ve created a community needs assessment example action plan below for a fictional non profit organization.
From their community needs assessment, they identified that the community is recording poor health outcomes in the 18-30’s age group. They found that these people, both male and female, are lacking sufficient health and fitness activities and the obesity level is rising within this group.
So the fictional non profit organization Fit4Life is launching a new service aimed at engaging this group in fun, free and accessible exercise activities.
Indicators of success
Lack of fitness clubs in the area
Set up a twice-weekly boot camp in the community hall. Make it free for anyone aged 18-30.
First session running by March 1st.
Volunteers can help with setting up the boot camp and serving water/ drinks.
Attendance levels at 20+ each session.
Health scores in future years.
Lack of free outdoor exercise areas
Speak to the council about building a walking path and installing exercise equipment around the park.
Speak to businesses about setting up ParkRun’s in the area.
First meeting on April 3rd.
Volunteers to help assist with future Park Runs.
Both of these activities get off the ground.
Financial pressures make it hard to find a babysitter for young children
Set up free childcare for kids aged 0-10 during boot camps.
Also record all sessions and make them available to view anytime from home online.
Before March 1st.
Volunteers with a WWCC can run the creche, with sports style games for the kids too such as hopscotch, basketball and hula hoops.
Uptake of free childcare services
Too many takeaway outlets in area make it easy to eat unhealthily
Create free healthy recipe booklets for easy, simple meals and deliver them to all houses.
By May 20th.
Ask volunteers to submit recipes, and ask for volunteers with IT skills to create a booklet.
Improved health scores in the future.
Conducting a community needs assessment is an important tool that non profit organizations can use to identify gaps and plan services accordingly.
And while it does take a lot of time and effort to conduct a community needs assessment, you don’t need to start completely from scratch.
There are plenty of great resources out there that can help guide your research and give you the basic structure to follow. Check out these resources to help you get started:
- Australian Institute of Family Studies: This resource is for practitioners and policy makers who want to learn more about the needs assessment process or how to conduct a needs assessment.
- Community Needs assessment workbook by American CDC: This workbook effectively guides you through planning for a community needs assessment including the questions to ask, how to review and rate data, develop and prioritize strategies for improvement, and creating an action plan. It’s helpful for any non profit organization.
- Community Toolbox from Kansas University: Another great tool that will guide you through a community needs assessment as a group. Simply download and follow.
- Rural Health Information Hub: Rural communities have limited resources to address many health-related needs, so this evidence based toolkit helps frame rural health programs.
We’ve also got plenty more great resources on the Rosterfy blog.
Keep reading more about volunteer management:
- Non profit event management: The ultimate guide for success
- How to write a volunteer job description
- 10 ways to promote volunteer diversity and inclusion
Rosterfy exists to connect communities to events and causes they are passionate about through volunteer and paid workforce management technology. Our proven end to end technology allows charities, events and organizations to recruit, register, screen, train, manage and report with ease, replacing manual processes with automations to better engage and retain your volunteers.