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Community Needs Assessments

By Tracy Taylor

Graduate Student, Case Western Reserve University


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.

A Needs Assessment is an extension of the strategic planning process. Strategic planning confirms, transforms or develops a new mission and vision; characterizes the nature of the business; furnishes a sense of direction for the organization; identifies the goals necessary to achieve the mission; develops specific plans to carry out each goal; and identifies essential resources such as people, property, time, money, and technology to attain the goals.

After the goals and the required resources have been determined, the needs assessment process becomes fairly straightforward. A needs assessment will:

  1. Identify the essential resources are already available within the organization.

  2. Identify the essential resources to be acquired.

  3. Determine how to use, develop or obtain those resources.

"If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do and how to do it." - Abraham Lincoln

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." - Benjamin Franklin

"Plans are nothing; planning is everything." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Historic Roots

Strategy is a term that comes from the Greek strategia, meaning "generalship." The concept of strategy has been borrowed from the military and adapted for use in business. A review of what noted writers have to say about business strategy suggests that adopting the concept was easy because the adaptation required has been modest. In business, as in the military, strategy bridges the gap between policy and tactics. Together, strategy and tactics bridge the gap between ends and means (Nickols 2003).

Practitioners of the Way of Strategy from China and Japan have been known as the "masters of strategy." The Art of War, about Chinese strategy, was written 2500 years ago by Sun Tzu and has become a standard reference for military strategy. "There have been numerous translations and interpretations, the first really useful translation into English being by Lionel Giles in 1910" (Crouch 2003). The 36 Stratagems , written approximately 300 years ago by an unknown scholar, is a classic work of ancient China. It emphasizes deception as a military art and follows in the tradition of Sun Tzu's Art of War by seeking to win without fighting. Another translation, The Art of Strategy by R.L. Wing "provides a literal translation related to the management needs of today, and outlines an exceptional program for studying the work of Sun Tzu" (Crouch 2003). A Book of Five Rings, written in 1645, is a Japanese guide to strategy in the tradition of the Samurai. These four classical works continue to be studied and influence modern strategic planning.

A popular trend in the mid-1960s was formalized strategic planning. There is an abundance of literature on modern strategic planning. From the late 1960s to the present, many scholars and business elitists wrote about strategy and strategic planning. In 1979, George Steiner wrote the book Strategic Planning , which became one of the most popular resources for strategic planning in the business world. Communities, governments and businesses have utilized the many resources now available on the subject of strategic planning.

Needs assessments are an extension of strategic planning. Therefore, the historical roots of needs assessments mirror those of the formalized strategic planning popular in the mid-1960s. However, only in recent years have nonprofits taken advantage of strategic planning and needs assessment processes. These processes, together with outcome evaluations, are relatively new to nonprofit organizations.


Change is the main reason to obtain accurate information regarding the needs of a community. All communities are in a continual state of change. As they experience natural growth and development, communities encounter fluctuating demographics.

For instance, there may be major shifts in the average age of the population, the ethnic composition or unemployment rate. Other contributing factors are the social, cultural and economic changes which can alter the character or attitude of a community. Policies and programs that once may have been suitable are later viewed as inappropriate or obsolete for the area. Effective planning and action requires accurate and up-to-date information about the needs of the community.

The community needs assessment process is an invaluable tool for involving the public in solving problems and developing goals. People have a natural tendency to resist change due to the lack of adequate information or lack of involvement in the decision making process. Taking advantage of a needs assessment can be an excellent way for the public to become involved and contribute to the outcome(s). "I appreciate feeling like I have a voice that someone wants to hear. If this is continued, you will always have grateful residents." (Utah State University Extension 2003).

The same arguments apply to government and business (profit or nonprofit). Their environments are in a continual state of change by demographic shifts, economic fluctuations, technological advances and social and cultural changes. Instead of the term citizens, the terms clients, customers, patrons, consumers, students or families would apply, depending on the type of business. Instead of the term community, the terms target population, customer base, service area, district or region would apply , depending on the type of business .

Similar to community needs assessments, businesses and governments can adapt the needs assessment process to involve their stakeholders in solving problems and developing goals. As stated above, people are reluctant to change, so engagement in the process allows their involvement and contribution to the outcome(s).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The basic premise of a nonprofit organization is to serve the public. The best way to serve the public is by fulfilling the needs of the community. Performing a community needs assessment is an effective way to determine community needs.

As mentioned, needs assessments are an extension of strategic planning. Only in recent years have nonprofits taken advantage of strategic planning and needs assessment processes. These processes, together with outcome evaluations, are recent tools for use by nonprofit organizations.

Strategic planning and conducting a needs assessment are important steps in determining an effective course of action. As competition increases within the nonprofit sector and the private sector, it has become increasingly important for nonprofits to effectively plan for their futures. Strategic planning and needs assessments will help accomplish this difficult task.

Key Related Ideas

Evaluations are the counterpart to needs assessments. Needs assessments are completed before evaluations. Evaluations assess the relevance, adequacy and appropriateness of current individual programs, activities and events. They measure the relevance, satisfaction and effectiveness of an existing activity.

A Focus Group is an informal technique used to help assess the needs and feelings of participants on particular subjects. Participants engage in informal discussions about the particular study area(s). Focus groups are typically small in size and usually range between six to twenty participants. They are commonly used during the needs assessment process.

Forums are public meetings for invited people to express opinions about problems and needs. Forums are commonly used during the needs assessment process.

Organizational Planning involves creating a "to do" list for an organization. It lists the plan of work, programs and organizational growth over a period of time. Plans are created relatively easily; writing an organizational plan includes crafting a list of the work for action, identifying the work tasks, assigning staff or members to the tasks and projecting calendar dates the work will be accomplished.

Program Evaluation carefully collects information about a program or an aspect of a program in order to make necessary decisions about the program. Program evaluation can include any or a variety of at least 35 different types of evaluation, such as needs assessments, accreditation, cost/benefit analysis, effectiveness, efficiency, formative, goal-based, process, outcomes, etc. The type of evaluation you undertake to improve your programs depends on what you want to learn about the program" (McNamara 2003).

Strategic Planning "is a systematic process through which an organization agrees on - and builds commitment among key stakeholders to - priorities which are essential to its mission and responsive to the operating environment" (Allison 1997).

Surveys are a particular form of data collection utilized during the needs assessment process. Types of surveys commonly applied are person-to-person interviews, drop-off and pick-up questionnaires, mail questionnaires and telephone interviews.

SWOT Analysis evaluates the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats of an organization. "SWOT analysis is a broad overview of the most important internal Strengths and Weaknesses and the most important external Opportunities and Threats" (Allison 1997). It is a function performed during the strategic planning process.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • James W. Altschuld and Bell Ruth Wilkin : Altschuld, Professor of Education at Ohio State University, and Wilkin, a part-time lecturer for the University of Washington, co-authored the books Planning and Conducting Needs Assessments: A Practical Guide (1995) and From Needs Assessments to Action: Transforming Needs into Solution Strategies (1999). These books are valuable resources for performing needs assessments.

  • John M. Bryson : Bryson, Professor of Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, is considered an expert in the field of strategic planning. He has written several books on the topic, which have received great reviews. "Strategic planning for Public and Non-Profit Organizations is already a classic, and the new revised edition reconfirms John Bryson's place as the international leader in the field" (Light 2003).

  • Jack McKillip: McKillip was on the faculty at Southern Illinois University for over 29 years. His book Need Analysis: Tools for the Human Services and Education was published in 1987. Several universities incorporate his book in their curriculums; many governments, businesses and researchers find it an effective resource. 

  • Henry Mintzberg: Mintzberg, Professor of Management at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has written several books and articles on the topic of strategic planning. "Henry Mintzberg's entire career has focused on understanding how managers make decisions and how they develop strategy. Professor Mintzberg is one of the world's most influential teachers of business strategy" (Reingold 2003).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Local YMCA s often use the strategic planning process. "Because all communities have different needs, all YMCAs are different. Every Y makes its own decisions on what programs to offer and how to operate" (YMCA.net 2003). The Treasure Valley Family YMCA, based in Boise, Idaho, had its 1998-2002 strategic plan recognized in the National YMCA magazine. "At the Boise Family YMCA, we believe in strategic planning" (Discovery YMCA 2003) ( http://www.ymca.net ). To view their strategic plan, visit http://www.ymca.net/presrm/discovery/98_summer/board.htm .

  • The Berkley-Albany YMCA performs strategic planning on a routine basis. "Approximately every five years, the Berkeley-Albany YMCA volunteer leaders and staff evaluate our work and prepare a strategic agenda for the future" (Berkley-Albany YMCA) ( http://www.baymca.org ). To view the priorities of their current strategic plan, visit http://www.baymca.org/index.php/strategic.html .

Related Web Sites

Crouchnet.com Web site, at http://crouchnet.com , provides two different strategic planning models. There is an extensive list of internet links related to modern strategic planning resources, classic strategic planning resources, planning definitions and resources related to planning.

Iowa State University Extension Web site, at www.extension.iastate.edu , contains information on needs assessments. The tool "Needs Assessment Strategies for Community Groups and Organizations," identifies five different needs assessment techniques. For access to this tool, visit http://www.extension.iastate.edu/communities/tools/assess/ .

Management Assistance Programs for Nonprofits (MAP) Web site, at www.mapfornonprofits.org , offers "quality, affordable management and board development services for nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, and religious institutions" (MAP 2003). The "free management library" provides excellent information on strategic planning, program evaluation and many related topics. For quick access to the strategic planning information, visit http://www.mapnp.org/library/plan_dec/str_plan/str_plan.htm .

North Central Regional Educational Library Web site, at www.ncrel.org , provides "research-based resources to educators and policymakers" (NCREL 2003). The site provides a detailed explanation of Community Needs Assessments, which can accessed at http://www.ncrel.org/sdrs/areas/issues/envrnmnt/css/ppt/chap2.htm .

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Allison, Michael J., Jude Kaye. Strategic Planning for Nonprofit Organizations:
A Practical Guide and Workbook . New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1997. ISBN: 0-471-17832-2.

Berkley-Albany YMCA. "About Us: Strategic Plan and Goals." Accessed 6 December 2003. http://www.baymca.org/index.php/strategic.html .

Crouch, Clark. "Strategic Planning Publications." Accessed 2 December 2003.

Discovery YMCA. Summer 1998: Board Forum. Accessed 6 December 2003.
http://www.ymca.net/presrm/discovery/98_summer/board.htm .

Light, Paul. "General Nonprofit Organizations." Jossey-Bass: Strategic Planning for Public and Nonprofit Organizations: A Guide to Strengthening and Sustaining Organizational Achievement.

McNamara, Carter. Basic Guide to Program Evaluation. Accessed 6 December 2003.
http://www.mapnp.org/library/evaluatn/fnl_eval.htm .

Management Assistance Programs for Nonprofits (MAP). "Needs Assessment Strategies for Community Groups and Organizations." Accessed 6 December 2003. http://www.mapfornonprofits.org .

Nickols, Fred. "Strategy Definitions and Meaning." Accessed 3 December 2003.
http://home.att.net/~nickols/strategy_definition.htm .

North Central Regional Educational Library. "Homepage." Accessed 6 December 2003. http://www.ncrel.org.

Reingold, Jennifer. "You can't Create a Leader in a Classroom," Fast Company (2000): 40, 286.

Utah State University Extension. "Community Needs Assessment Survey Guide." Accessed 2 December 2003. http://extension.usu.edu/files/SGuide.pdf .

Whatcom Council of Nonprofits. "Best Practices for Nonprofits." Accessed 6 December 2003. http://www.wcnwebsite.org/practices/strategic.htm .

YMCA.net. "About the YMCA." Accessed 6 December 2003. http://www.ymca.net/index.jsp .