by Richard A. Krueger
Local support is essential for educational and service programs to be successful. When people participate in the identification of concerns they are more apt to become involved with solution strategies. With needs assessment we tap into local support structures, we obtain internal and external resources, we engage people, we publicize the activity, and overall we get stuff done.
What Prompts a Needs Assessment?
Regularly a needs assessment is triggered by one or more of the following:
- An event, tragedy, disaster, economic or social conflict, etc.
- Visionary individuals seeking action
- A requirement for financial support
- Someone in authority says you have to do it
- Resources are available to solve a problem but NA is the first step
- The community is experiencing change: economic, demographic, etc.
These filters will help you decide what to do / or the extent to which you act:
- Is it within the mission of your organization?
- Does your organization have historic expertise in this area?
- Does your organization have a good track record of cooperation?
- Is it in your area of expertise or responsibility?
- Is it in your area of expertise or responsibility?
- Do you have the time needed to begin and sustain the effort?
Approaches for Conducting Needs Assessment
Four traditional approaches have been used for looking at needs: The concept of "need" is seen differently by various experts. Here are four of the major approaches to defining "need".
- Basic human needs such as described by Maslow.
Maslow identified five types of needs arranged in a hierarchy. The emergence of a new need usually depends on a prior or lower level need being satisfied. Individuals seek resolution of the lower unmet needs before seeking resolution of higher levels. Maslow's categories include:
Felt or expressed needs
- Self-actualization needs
- Ego needs
- Social needs
- Security needs
- Physiological needs
This type of need is one that is "felt" or desired by the individual. With this approach the individual must be aware of and be able to express their needs. Using this approach, educators might offer a cafeteria of opportunities from which the customer makes a selection.
Normative needs are those where there is a gap or deficiency between what is desirable (ideal) and what actually exists. When a gap occurs the individual is deemed to be in need. Consider the case of nutritional requirements.
The comparative approach seeks to compare the characteristics of those who are receiving a particular service or opportunity with those who do not. If you do not have a service, opportunity or program offering available to you, but those in other areas do have it available, then you may be considered to be in need.
Here's a Simple Strategy for Needs Assessment
- Conceptualize the study
Determine the level of resources available to conduct the assessment
- Make the problem easier by dividing it into parts. For example you might separately examine the needs of individuals, families and communities
- Develop a preliminary theory of action--a chain of events leading to need
- Determine the level of resources available to conduct the assessment
Begin with informal discussions, then move to more formal structures.
Listen to experts
Experts often have insights about complex problems. Experts might suggest ideas about causes and consequences, successful past strategies, sources of information, ways to frame the problem, and networks of people.
Use multiple methods
Triangulation is a sound strategy in program evaluation. In triangulation the researcher uses different instruments to investigate the need and seeks to find confirmatory evidence or insights that arise from a particular research methodology.
Think critically and skeptically, but be upbeat
Here are some principles that might guide your listening strategy:
Seek insight about both needs and assets
- Don't trap yourself with cliches or negative thoughts
- Be open to hearing what you didn't expect
- Document differing views--explain these views and provide the rationale
Avoid assuming a deficiency model where individuals or communities need help from outside sources.
Strive for practical and useful action steps
As you assemble the data you will need to have strategies for determining where to place attention. Consider both "importance" and "doability".
- Understanding needs is only the beginning. Next is the challenge is to use the information in a constructive way. Seek assistance from the taskforce in disseminating the results.
- Decide who needs to hear about the results, how they should be shared, and the role of the media.
Sorting and Ranking Exercise
Here is a small-group exercise that helps people identify which needs ought to be addressed. This exercise works well with three to six people around a table. If the audience is larger then multiple groups can be conducted simultaneously with later sharing of results and discussion.
- In advance of the exercise, identify potential needs based on a systematic process such as expert assessment, community surveys, individual or group interviews, or other methods. Or, do use brainstorming to identify a list of needs.
- List all needs on individual 3 x 5 cards.
- Locate four containers large enough to hold a number of cards, such as coffee cans, shoe boxes, etc. Attach a label on each container. Post-It notes work well because they can be easily removed for the second part of the exercise. The four labels usually indicate levels of importance: Very Important, Moderately Important, Slightly Important, and Not Important.
- Place the deck of 3 x 5 cards and the empty containers on a table and invite three to six people to sit around the table.
- Ask the participants to turn over one card at a time from the deck, briefly discuss, decide the level of importance of that particular need and place it into the appropriate container.
- When they are finished take the cards from the two most important categories (Very Importance and Moderately Important), change the labels on the containers. Then ask them to sort the cards once again. This time the labels on the containers are on Doability: Very Doable, Moderately Doable, Slightly Doable, and Not Doable. Doable means that local residents are able to do something about this need. These are the needs that have the potential for being solved by local residents.
- When they are finished take the cards from the Very Doable container, spread them on the table and ask if these needs are both the most importance and the most doable. If so, these might be the needs where community members might start. With success in these they can tackle other needs.
NOTE: This exercise can be used successfully using other labels. For example you might list needs by high to low priority and then the solution strategies by high to low availability or agency response by high to low adequacy. Youth might rate activities by educational value and also by enjoyment.
Locating assets is an important part of needs assessment. Don't assume people are empty vessels waiting to be filled. Instead assume that people have capacities, talents, strengths, and skills that can be used in the community. Inquire about these traditions, successes, and resources. Consider brainstorming or focus groups to discover assets and to determine how assets might be applied to the problem or need. Reflect on past events, problems or needs and find the assets that were beneficial in those situations. Be ready to promote the assets and make the connection of how the assets can be used to solve a problem or reduce a need. Ask people what they can do, are willing to do, or could be persuaded to do to solve the problem. Among the leading thinkers in community assets are John Kretzmann and John McKnight from Northwestern University. Their book Locating Community Assets: Building Communities From The Inside Out is a must reference for community professionals.
If you would like to read more about Needs Assessment, consider these references:
Boyle, Patrick G. (1981) Planning Better Programs. New York: McGraw-Hill
Johnson, Donald E., et al (1987) Needs Assessment: Theory and Methods. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
Kretzmann, John & McKnight, John (1993) Locating Community Assets: Building Communities From The Inside Out Chicago: ACTA Publications (312-271-1030)
Maslow, Abraham H. (1970) Motivation and Personality. New York: Harper & Row
Monette, Maurice (1977) "The concept of educational need: An analysis of selected literature." Adult Education, Vo: XXVII, no. 2, pp. 116-127
Witkin, B.R. & Altschuld, J.W. (1995) Planning and Conducting Needs Assessment. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage
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